Joanna Weiss

Contraception, the economic miracle drug


AS SHE STUMPS for the Senate these days, Elizabeth Warren is trying her best to emphasize economics over gender. So at a campaign stop this week, when I asked her about our bizarre, retrograde, Limbaugh-drenched national conversation about birth control, she tried to spin the subject back to finance. Contraception, she said, is “an economic issue, as well as a social issue.’’

Warren was talking about families, many of whom struggle to fit health care costs into their household budgets. But her statement works on a macro level, too. For fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks, birth control turns out to be something of a miracle drug. It saves everyone money.

Consider a brief released last Monday by the Brookings Institution that studied family planning programs covered by Medicaid, and came to an eye-opening conclusion. Every taxpayer dollar spent on family planning services - teen pregnancy prevention programs, media campaigns, and especially birth control - would save taxpayers between $2 and $6.


That’s a small-c conservative estimate, the study notes, that doesn’t take into account some of the other potential benefits if children are born at an optimal time in their parents’ lives: less spending on welfare and criminal justice, better high school graduation rates. And the general, simple principle - reducing unplanned pregnancies saves money - has clear implications for health care writ large, said Adam Thomas, the study’s author and a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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The money lens is a different way to look at this depressing brouhaha over birth control mandates in the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare, if you prefer - and it’s something Republicans ought to consider for their own sake. The nonstop coverage of Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting rant against a female law school student, who dared to testify to Congress on an issue related to (gasp) sex, isn’t going to do much to close a yawning gender gap. That’s not good news for the GOP in November.

But in their blind hatred for Obamacare, Republicans have boxed themseves into a corner. They made a choice to declare birth control a matter of religious conviction, and in truth, there’s an argument to be made about the value of a conscience clause. But it didn’t take long for the rhetoric to get carried away, until suddenly we were talking about judgment and shame. It wasn’t just Rush calling the student a “slut’’ and a “prostitute.’’ Last weekend, Rick Santorum told Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace that he thinks birth control is a “grievous moral wrong.’’

And Mitt Romney - who never ceases to disappoint people who think he should know better - bungled an easy chance to introduce sanity to the debate. Instead, he said of Limbaugh, “It’s not the language I would have used.’’ (Talking to friends this week, I’ve heard all sorts of potential Mitt-like alternatives: “Hussy?’’ “Trollop?’’ “Lady of the evening?’’)

As Thomas points out, Rush’s rant - which concluded that if taxpayers were paying for women’s birth control, they should be able to see videos of women having sex - missed a fundamental point about Obama’s birth control mandate. The provision in question doesn’t require taxpayers to spend a penny. It applies to private insurers, and it’s part of a long list of preventive services that now must be provided with no cost-sharing from patients. These include hearing screenings for newborns, vaccines for children, cessation programs for smokers, and colorectal cancer screenings for adults over 50.


And it’s striking that, amid all of the noise over the contraception mandates, we haven’t heard much complaint from the insurance industry. In fact, about 90 percent of private health insurers already cover contraception, Thomas said. Birth control is far cheaper to cover than a child.

So, let’s tally it out. Free contraception would reduce health care costs. It would save taxpayer money. It would reduce some of the problems that social conservatives abhor, such as teen pregnancy and abortion.

“There’s a lot here for conservatives to like,’’ Thomas said. And changing the conversation — from gender to money, from shame to sanity — would do everyone a world of good.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.