On Jan. 22, the 51st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade that affirmed a constitutional right to abortion in the United States, the White House announced several steps that its Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access is taking to improve access to abortion.
The task force was created to document and report on the steps to implement the president’s three executive orders, issued in August 2022, July 2022, and June 2023, aimed at improving access to and affordability of reproductive health care, including contraception.
The administration announced a plan to improve patient awareness about access to emergency care under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, ensuring that patients get the care they need, explicitly including care for pregnancy-related emergencies. In support of Biden’s executive order that federal agencies take actions to protect access to family planning and affordable and high-quality contraception, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra wrote a letter to issuers of Medicare plans, private health insurance companies, and state Medicaid programs, reminding them of their legal obligations to cover contraception without cost to the patient.
“From day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has made clear that women should have access to the healthcare they need, including contraception and other family planning services. I’m writing to reaffirm that access to reproductive healthcare is a core priority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” Becerra wrote.
State lawmakers are also making an effort to improve access to contraception. On July 13, 2023, Democratic Wisconsin state senators introduced Senate Bill 365, the Right to Contraception Act, which establishes the right of Wisconsinites to access contraception and of health care providers to provide contraceptives, but the bill has not yet had a public hearing.
“Wisconsin needs comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including abortion access and the right to obtain contraceptives,” Wisconsin state Sen. Melissa Agard told the Wisconsin Independent in an email. “To see this bill has yet to have a public hearing is disappointing and concerning. Legislative Republicans have no regard for women in our state by again ignoring their calls for the right to contraceptives and continuing to refuse to address abortion access in our state.”
Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a physician who practices general obstetrics and gynecology in rural and underserved communities primarily in Minnesota but lives in Wisconsin, told the Wisconsin Independent that it’s vital the state pass the Right to Contraception Act.
“It would ensure that people will have access to obtain contraception and contraceptive education and that providers will be able to offer contraception and education about contraceptives,” Lyerly said.
She explained that the act would help for two reasons: one, because having the law in place would lessen confusion around what kinds of care doctors can deliver to patients regarding contraception, and two, patients who want birth control need to be able to access it.
“It is critically important that people can get contraception if the Republicans are serious about preventing unplanned pregnancies and reducing the number of abortions in our state. We have to prevent unplanned pregnancies,” Lyerly said.
Lyerly said that many of the Catholic Church-affiliated hospitals in Wisconsin refuse to discuss birth control with patients.
According to the nonprofit news website Wisconsin Watch, one-third of all hospitals in Wisconsin are affiliated with the Catholic Church, and they’re often in rural or low-income communities.
“In those Catholic hospitals, they are not allowed to provide contraception, including sterilization. So I could be performing a cesarean delivery for a woman’s fourth pregnancy at age 40, and I could literally be looking at her fallopian tubes, and she could desperately want sterilization, and I would not be able to remove her tubes because the bishop says no, even though it’s clearly the thing she wants and the best medical thing for her,” Lyerly said.
During his annual State of the State address on Jan. 23, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced he would be making over-the-counter contraceptives free for beneficiaries of the Medicaid- and CHIP-funded state health insurance program BadgerCare Plus. Currently, those with BadgerCare Plus coverage can only get over-the-counter or emergency contraception with a doctor’s prescription.
“Every Wisconsinite should be able to access the health care they need when they need it. And, yes, that includes contraception,” Evers said.