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National NOW Times >> Spring 2004 >> Article

Poverty Reduction Must Include Reproductive Health Options

by Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst

On April 25 more than a million activists marched for women's lives in our nation's capital. Many of us very specifically raised our voices in solidarity with poor and low-income women and their families. It is our nation's least affluent girls and women who suffer the brunt of the cruel, restrictive and often life-destroying policies of this administration and this Congress. These policies are undermining and denying women's rights to full reproductive health care and the right to make our own family formation decisions.

Women from around the globe took the stage at the March for Women's Lives. Lifting women out of poverty worldwide must include access to the full range of reproductive health services.
Women from around the globe took the stage at the March for Women's Lives. Lifting women out of poverty worldwide must include access to the full range of reproductive health services. Photo by Christy Bowe
We marched with and on behalf of the millions of girls and women who could not come to Washington, D.C., because their lives are consumed with the everyday job of raising their families and meeting life’s challenges with little more than loose change after the bills are paid. While keeping abortion safe and legal is on their "to-do list," it comes after life's necessities such as jobs, safety and their children's needs.

So we marched for them because access to family planning and reproductive health care is an integral factor in helping girls to grow up healthy and thrive and women to escape poverty and survive. Because they are limited by lack of funds, opportunities, support systems and restrictive laws and policies, women who live in poverty face almost insurmountable roadblocks and disdainful discrimination when they attempt to escape their situation, find treatment for their health care needs and make childbearing decisions. Our fight must—and does—include these sisters because:

  • Without economic means, poor women, who are disproportionately women of color, must rely on public programs and government resources for their health care, and the government often works to restrict poor women's reproductive health options rather than expand them. Until recently, poor women and developmentally-disabled women were routinely sterilized without their consent. The denial of comprehensive health care and reproductive rights is a form of violence against girls and women.

  • Low-income and poor women are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to experience sexual, physical and emotional abuse as children and as adults. Women who have dealt with child sexual abuse, incest and rape in their lives must have information about disease and rape prevention and access to treatment, as well as information about all of their health, safety and reproductive choices. Poor women have limited options for family planning, childbearing decisions and reproductive health. They do not have the luxury of choice, only the need for survival and life-saving medical treatment and procedures.

  • Women with unintended and unwanted pregnancies are more than twice as likely to be victims of involuntary sexual intercourse and physical abuse from a partner. Many batterers are also rapists who forbid the use of birth control, refuse to wear condoms and physically prevent their victims from seeing a doctor. Yet Congress has set up hurdles for poor women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies; Medicaid is prevented from paying for pregnancy terminations; and the 1996 welfare law allows states to refuse public benefits for new babies born into a family on welfare.

  • Emergency contraception (high doses of birth control pills), also known as "the morning-after pill," could prevent tens of thousands of unwanted pregnancies each year. Opponents of women's reproductive choices are fighting to keep this remedy from being distributed in pharmacies or campus health care centers, and they want to limit its availability to all women by making it only available with a doctor's prescription. This pretty much closes the door for low-income and poor women, who rarely have regular doctors and sympathetic pharmacies nearby. Sadly, information about the availability of emergency contraception (EC) is not prevalent, and even rape survivors are often not aware of this medical option for pregnancy prevention. Others are forced to do battle with medical and hospital personnel to receive EC, and for low-income and poor women, this may be one battle too many.

  • Women's health clinics are picketed routinely, vandalized, even bombed, and the providers are constantly harassed. For many poor and abused women, these clinics are often their only access to health care and an important place where they can get confidential services. Shutting these health care centers down through anti-abortion harassment hurts all women.

  • The Bush administration is practicing "social engineering" with poor families — diverting more than a billion dollars of federal welfare funds to "marriage promotion" programs that are designed to steer single moms to the altar as a solution to poverty. While reducing educational opportunities that could provide lifelong self-sufficiency, the administration is trying to intimidate poor women into marriage with little regard to the economic, social and potentially abusive consequences of this crusade. Poor and low-income women, like all girls and women, should have the right to determine the timing and nature of their families.

    With the energy and momentum of the March for Women's Lives still at hand, NOW and our allies will be working in communities all across the nation to ensure that low-income and poor women have a chance to be heard. Voter registration and mobilization will include our sisters who couldn't make it to the March. Stop the Violence/Stop the Poverty campaigns will be finding and including these voters in the "march" to the polls in November.

    Want to help? Visit or make a contribution toward NOW's work to promote economic justice and self sufficiency for all women.

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