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Access to Contraceptives Essential

Life is precious and we must protect it — and give the people of this country the tools necessary to do the same. The majority of Americans believe childbearing is a personal decision of conscience and medical necessity, often guided by deeply held beliefs. And Americans strongly oppose government intrusion in this most private decision. We affirm that reproductive choices are complex moral decisions and should not be treated simplistically.

No one disputes that abortion is a last resort and that we should minimize its use; we disagree about the most effective way to do

so. Rather than imposing government limitations on a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body, the best way to limit abortions is to arm individuals with alternatives and attempt to eliminate the conditions that lead to abortions in the first place.

A comprehensive view of this topic must begin with a sober realization of the ills in our society created by restricting access to adequate contraceptive care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were more than 886,000 cases of AIDS diagnosed in the United States through 2002, and sexually transmitted diseases are increasing, particularly in low-income and minority populations.

In addition to STDs, we are faced with staggering evidence that children are all too often born into situations very different from anyone’s ideal picture. More than 500,000 children are in foster care, and an estimated 4,239 perpetrators and 5,133 instances of abuse or neglect occurred in these foster homes in 2001 alone. In our nation today, more than 3 million children are subjected to abuse each year, with more than 1,000 fatalities occurring as a result. In addition, 11 percent of all newborns are exposed to illegal drugs and 2.6 million infants each year are prenatally exposed to alcohol.

These statistics paint a dismal picture. We must begin to paint a better future by ensuring that all children come into the world with the options they deserve — so many are not given the chance to be a part of a loving and sustained family life. Comprehensive sex education is absolutely necessary to combat these ills.

The abortion rate has declined steadily over time and more rapidly since 1990 than in the previous decade. Among the reasons are use of long-acting hormonal contraceptives, a lower pregnancy rate among teenagers and growing use of emergency contraception. Our education campaigns have begun to work. The declining pregnancy rate among teenagers is the result primarily of better contraceptive use. Yet the president’s budget proposes doubling federal funding for “abstinence-only” programs, which the administration has been promoting aggressively both domestically and overseas instead of traditional, comprehensive sex education. If the goal is to reduce the need for abortion in the United States, why would our very own president intentionally raise the risk of unintended pregnancy? This administration’s policies are turning back the clock on hard-fought gains of the past few decades.

While most sex-education programs teach the value of abstinence, abstinence-only education does not provide basic information on reproductive health such as responsible contraceptive and condom use. A 2001 report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that sex-education programs that discuss both abstinence and contraception have been proven to delay sex, reduce the frequency of sex and increase contraceptive use. The report found no credible evidence that abstinence-only programs have the same results. The Institute of Medicine has recommended halting funding for abstinence-only programs, and the National Institutes of Health has concluded that abstinence-only programs cannot be justified given the fact that we face an international emergency with regard to the AIDS epidemic.

President Bush has argued for the elimination of federal programs that have not been proven effective. Yet he would rather put our children in jeopardy than take his own advice.

Those who support laws and policies such as the so-called “partial-birth” abortion ban, the recently passed Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the “Global Gag Rule,” which Bush reinstituted the very first day he took office, do not merely target a woman’s right to choose. They look at a woman’s health and life, and a family’s future, and plainly say, “You don’t count.”

Each woman with an unplanned or problem pregnancy must face the issue anew. Terminating a pregnancy has never been an easy decision to make. However, it must remain enshrined as a fundamental right. Today, a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is fragile — and reproductive rights, since becoming an essential part of the vocabulary of the freedoms we in this country enjoy, have never been compromised to such a great extent.

This administration has created the most destructive assault on the value of life — the value of a person and a family’s right to responsibly bring a child into the world. In stark opposition to the one-answer-fits-all approach of opponents of abortion rights, the exercise of individual conscience calls for women to conduct their own moral searches and personal inventories.

The right to choose is a right to reject coercion from the government about intimate matters. After 30 years of steady attacks on the right to choose following the historic decision of Roe v. Wade, many of the most vulnerable — women of color, women who are poor, those who are young — do not feel protected in the most personal aspects of their lives.

We must move beyond the bitter and divisive battle over abortion. We must ensure that every child is wanted and can be nurtured by a caring family and community; that every pregnant woman has sufficient health care; that youth and adults are educated about sexuality so they can make responsible decisions; and that freedom of choice — basic to our way of life — is preserved.

The people in America who believe in a woman’s right to choose are loving parents and responsible citizens, committed to civil rights and freedom. They are committed to life and do not take it for granted. And we who represent them must protect their ability to exercise their rights and meet their responsibilities. The need for us to do so has never been greater.

Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) is a member of the Budget Committee.

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