Commentary Law and Policy

Women Not on the Priority List: President Obama’s Budget, Congress, and the Struggle for Affordable Abortion Care

Morgan Meneses-Sheets

It is often said that a budget is a statement of priorities. It shows what matters to people. Women should matter. Access to safe medical care should matter.

After a significant delay, the president submitted his budget to Congress Wednesday. Reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates were pleased to see that he included language allowing the District of Columbia to use its own funds to cover abortion for low-income women through their Medicaid program. When Medicaid covers pregnancy care but denies coverage for abortion, a woman does not have the ability to make important decisions based on what is best for her and her family. However we feel about abortion, we certainly shouldn’t withhold health coverage for a woman just because she’s poor.

The president also included abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape and incest. The pain caused by sexual violence should never be made worse by denying access to care, so this is an important first step.

While these provisions provide exciting progress, there is still much more work to be done in order to ensure that no woman is denied health coverage for abortion because of her income, her immigration status, or her type of insurance.

Sadly, the president’s budget continued to withhold coverage for women who use benefits through federal health programs, including federal employees and their dependents, women in federal prisons, Native American women who access care through Indian Health Services, and low-income women with coverage through the federal Medicaid program. The ongoing denial of federal health-care assistance for abortion pushes many women and their families further into poverty and leaves them unable to access the care they need.

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The president had a chance to take a strong stand for women’s health. More than 70 organizations joined an official request in December that he submit a “clean budget” without any of these unfair limitations. Women got him re-elected—in particular women of color, who already face significant barriers to receiving high-quality health care.

Decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child are better left to a woman and her family. But for a woman to be able to make a real decision based on what’s best for her own circumstances, she needs to be able to afford it. The many women and families who are already struggling to make ends meet in this country simply do not have additional funds to pay for reproductive health care out-of-pocket.

Holding back benefits from someone who is eligible, just to make it impossible for her to have an abortion is unconscionable. All women—whether their health coverage comes from an individual plan, is employer sponsored, or is through a federal health program—should have access to a full range of pregnancy related care, including abortion.

It is often said that a budget is a statement of priorities. It shows what matters to people. Women should matter. Access to safe medical care should matter. As Congress members begin the arduous appropriations process, I urge them to put politics aside, stop interfering with personal decision-making, and lift the restrictions on coverage of abortion care. Let’s make women’s health and safety a priority.

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