Your Pennsylvania tax dollars at work ... against women

State lawmakers are squandering time and money to block health care access for women

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If you read the comments posted by readers at the bottom of online newspaper articles, you've probably seen some variation of this: "I (do or don't) have a problem with abortion, but why should I have to pay for it with my taxes?"

The answer is, you don't. There is virtually no public funding for abortion services in this country, and there hasn't been since the Hyde Amendment in 1977, although Congress has allowed some exceptions over the years for poor women in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening conditions.

Similar comments appear when the subject is contraception, which actually helps cut down on unwanted pregnancy and, hence, abortion. Those opposed to contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act say they don't want to pay for other people's birth control. But they wouldn't be, any more than they'd be paying for other people's gall bladder surgery, pre-natal visits or vasectomies.

Some folks get very worked up over these red herrings. But what they may not know, if they live in Pennsylvania, is what their taxes are paying for: repeated attempts by the country's most bloated state Legislature to block access to safe, constitutionally protected health care for women -- poor women, especially.

Folks may not realize, for example, that the Republican-controlled Legislature spent more than a third of its voting days in the first half of 2011 taking up some kind of action toward that end.

Think about that for a minute. Pennsylvania has the largest full-time and second-most-expensive Legislature in the nation -- 253 lawmakers and about 2,900 support staffers costing more than $300 million a year -- despite ranking sixth in population. And this is how they choose to spend their very expensive time?

Did I mention that the statehouse is 83 percent male? Don't they have anything better to do? Ripping off taxpayers with midnight bonuses may not be as easy as it used to be, but must they take out their frustrations on poor women?

The 30 percent number comes from Susan Frietsche, staff attorney for the Women's Law Project in Pittsburgh, which has been fighting political incursions into women's wombs for decades. How did she arrive at 30-plus?

"I counted," she said, using the state legislative website, which posts the calendar of voting sessions and the bills taken up in each of them. Of the 53 voting days during that period, 20 dealt with reproductive restrictions -- sometimes extensively, sometimes less so. And that doesn't account for all the additional time spent on these issues outside of voting sessions.

Just as a reality check, here are the top 10 issues states are facing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: stabilizing budgets; health care reform; protecting public pensions; reducing incarceration and its costs; building and regulating new energy technologies; transportation infrastructure; education funding and student achievement; job creation; workforce training; and strengthening families in a shrinking economy.

Setting up more hurdles between women and their doctors is not on the list.

Much of the time spent thusly in the first half of 2011 involved the ambulatory surgical facility bill, which has forced clinics to meet costly, medically unnecessary standards. It passed, and the Department of Health reports that only 14 of the state's 22 abortion facilities now are qualified to perform the procedure.

Some of the others closed -- including two in Pittsburgh -- two were placed under hospital licenses and five are providing only medication abortions. Some physicians no longer do abortions in their offices but rather in operating rooms -- which can cost 10 times as much as the same procedure in free-standing clinics, with zero improvement in safety.

"Our free-standing clinics are very safe," Ms. Frietsche said. "Their infection rates are 1 in 2,000, or 0.05 percent. One clinic's infection rate was so low it couldn't be measured. Yet the law required them to tear out ceilings and floors and put in new ones to prevent infections."

The Department of Health decided to waive the mandate on hospital-grade elevators. But many clinics had to replace perfectly good heating and air conditioning systems for no other reason than the law.

"Making clinics conform to these new requirements is part of a long-term, nationwide anti-abortion strategy to make the procedure too hard and expensive to get, and to constrict the pool of providers," Ms. Frietsche said.

The other legislative time-eater in the first half of 2011 was the proposed ban on contraceptive coverage in the soon-to-be-established insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. That one didn't pass. Yet.

Then there are the matters that came up later, chief among them being the trans-vaginal ultrasound for any woman seeking to end a pregnancy. That bill said the usual jelly-on-the-belly ultrasound wasn't good enough, that doctors had to use the invasive method to produce an accurate gestational age of the fetus.

Gov. Tom Corbett said he supported the provision, as long as it wasn't "obtrusive" -- meaning "intrusive" -- as if there was any other way to describe the forcing of a probe into a woman's uterus. As for making women view the image during the procedure, he said they could just look away. Clearly, the real motive is to make things as costly and uncomfortable as possible.

"It's awfully demeaning to women, and not very good medicine either," Ms. Frietsche said.

The ultrasound bill didn't pass but will almost certainly be back. Just another example of your tax dollars at work while legitimately pressing issues fall by the wayside. Ka-ching.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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