Birth Control Benefit a Huge Advance for Women's Health and Equality

(FILES) - Photo taken on January 28, 2013 shows pills of Diane 35, an acne drug often prescribed by doctors as a contraceptiv
(FILES) - Photo taken on January 28, 2013 shows pills of Diane 35, an acne drug often prescribed by doctors as a contraceptive in Lille, France. In the latest health scare to erupt in France, a drug watchdog on January 30, 2013 announced it was suspending sales of an acne pill also used as a contraceptive after four women died and more than 100 others fell ill with blood clots. AFP PHOTO/ PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Birth control was illegal 97 years ago, when Margaret Sanger and her sister, Ethel, opened a clinic in a tiny storefront in Brooklyn -- the first Planned Parenthood health center. For 10 cents apiece, women could get information about family planning. From the very first day, women lined up down the block with baby buggies and babies in their arms.

Back then, it wasn't unusual for women to have eight or 10 children, and women routinely died in childbirth. Margaret's own mother had died at the age of 48, her body literally worn out from having 11 children and seven miscarriages.

Ten days after Margaret opened her clinic, she was arrested and thrown in jail -- where she taught her fellow inmates about birth control. And the Planned Parenthood movement was started.

In 1960, the pill was approved as a contraceptive by the FDA and began to change women's lives dramatically. But we still had to fight. It wasn't until 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a right to use birth control, in a case heard on behalf of one of Planned Parenthood's great leaders. Since then, we've spent decades trying to make birth control more affordable by getting health insurance coverage that includes birth control, like it does any other preventive care.

Today we are closer than ever to realizing that promise. This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services announced new guidance for implementing the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. The proposed regulations released today make clear that women will have access to birth control at no cost, no matter where they work.

Regulations like this can get confusing. Here's the bottom line: places of worship are exempt from the birth control benefit, and they always have been. Today's regulations don't expand the group of employers that are exempt. Instead, the regulations simplify the definition of who is exempt, and they map out how women at other religiously affiliated employers (like schools and hospitals) will get birth control at no cost.

In short, the regulations released today make it clear that your boss doesn't get to decide whether you can have birth control. These regulations treat birth control like what it is -- basic preventive health care that should be available, just like any other preventive care.

This is a huge advance for women's health and equality -- one that generations of women have fought to make happen.

What Margaret Sanger started 97 years ago is now Planned Parenthood, with more than 750 health centers around the country, delivering birth control and other health care to nearly three million patients a year. We have been on the front lines of making birth control available to women nationwide -- and we've seen firsthand the impact of women having access to the contraception method that works best for them, at no cost.

Just last fall, results were released from a four-year study of 9,200 women and teens in Missouri. They received full information about different types of contraception and then received the method of their choice at no cost -- which the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit would do nationally.

The results were dramatic. Unintended pregnancy dropped sharply. Birth rates among the teens in the study were less than a fifth of the national rate. The need for abortion dropped, and abortion rates were less than half of the regional and national rates.

When women have access to birth control, they can choose whether and when to have families. They can have an education, a career and a family.

That's the promise of the Affordable Care Act -- and that's why the policy released today is so important for women nationwide.