Do Contraceptives Stimulate the Economy?

Despite the terrible punning opportunities here, this is a serious issue. Republicans are attacking a provision in the stimulus bill that would allow states to cover family planning services for low income women without applying for a federal waiver. How, the Republicans ask, is this a job stimulus? How will this help the economy? Is it not just another progressive Christmas tree ornament to hang on this huge stimulus bill?

President Obama is reported to have already asked Democrats to drop this provision from the stimulus package today, according to a McClathy newspaper release.. Should he have backed down?

I happen to think it's smart to take this off the table at this point. Even if the issue appeals to only a small proportion of the voting public, it will get a lot of ink and distract from other issues that are more important to the overall debate. Also, it is highly likely that Boehner and other Republicans will vote against the stimulus anyway, and if they can crow that they voted against it because of this provision, taking it off the table now defangs that argument. Furthermore, the Obama administration is committed to the goals of family planning, and they may be able to ease the waiver issues by other means. There has been a lot of damage done to family planning funding over the past eight years. However, this may not be the right issue around which to have the battle.

Just in case you wonder what the fuss is all about, here is the provision in the stimulus bill that is causing such consternation among conservatives:

State Option to Cover Family Planning Services: Under current law, the Secretary has the authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to grant waivers to states to allow them to cover family planning services and supplies to low-income women who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid. The bill would give states the option to provide such coverage without obtaining a waiver. States could continue to use the existing waiver authority if they preferred.

Think Progress explains the potential impact of this provision as follows:

Like other portions of the stimulus bill, this measure would not only aid states, but also provide preventative, cost-saving health care to help low-income women support their families and keep working. It focuses on access to recommended services and contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies and promote maternal and infant health -- not abortion. ThinkProgress has learned that an upcoming Congressional Budget Office report estimates that this change would save $200 million over five years and $700 million over 10.

No one would be forcing states to pay for family planning services. States can now cover low-income women if they get a state waiver, but approval can take a long time. Despite these bureaucratic hassles, 27 states have already "obtained federal approval to extend Medicaid eligibility for family planning services to individuals who would otherwise not be eligible." This bill would simply allow states to skip the administrative delays.

Obama was pretty clear that he did not want the stimulus bill to include earmarks or pork of any kind. So does easing federal regulations about contraceptive provisions qualify as an earmark? A more central question is, can the Democrats make the case that this provision provides stimulus to the economy?

More jobs may not be created as a result of this provision. But preventing unplanned pregnancies does have productivity and economic implications. There is little disagreement that preventing unwanted pregnancy saves money. The conservatives never really argue about that. It is hard to make the case that it costs the government more to prevent a pregnancy than to support one. So why does this issue create so much controversy? It does, precisely because it mixes issues of the ability of women to control their own reproduction, the government role in providing assistance to those women, religious views about family planning, and it provides conservatives with a hot button issue to rally their base.

The public overwhelmingly supports a government role in providing famly planning services. Media Matters reports on a poll from 2005 that indicates 86% of the public and 85% of Catholics support government funding for contraception for women who do not have health insurance. So it's a very small proportion of the population that gets riled up about this topic. If that is true, does it make sense for Obama and Pelosi to back off this provision or stick to their guns?