Women's Health Shouldn't Be a Partisan Issue

As a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who has worked with leaders of both parties, I believe we should always agree on fundamental principles of public health. As a nation, we must always rise above partisan differences to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society have access to affordable, high-quality health care -- especially when that care can prevent serious illness. We must always put politics aside when health is at stake. Though partisanship is currently high, and the goal of balancing the budget looms large, we hope our elected officials will stay true to this bedrock principle -- by supporting the national family program (Title X) and recognizing the value of Planned Parenthood's network of health centers across the country.

Investing in the health of our women should not be a partisan preference. It's good for families and in the best interests of our country. Like other HHS Secretaries, I saw what a difference these investments can make. A stellar example is the national family planning program, known as Title X of the Public Health Services Act. It was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by a Republican President, Richard M. Nixon, in 1970. For 40 years, this program has given low-income women access to family planning services, including affordable birth control, well woman exams, and lifesaving screenings for cancer and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. This kind of basic, preventive care builds healthy families and healthy communities, and this bipartisan program has ensured that tens of millions of women have received it over four decades.

Having served in public life, I am well aware of the different voices and views on abortion. But health experts have long agreed that the politics of abortion must not obstruct women's access to essential primary and preventive health care, including family planning and birth control. That's a mainstream public health position and a commonsense prescription for the health of women and children.

As secretary of HHS, I presided over a large national network of safety net providers at the federal, state, and local level, and we oversaw the federal funding of insurance programs, hospitals, community health centers, family planning centers, mental health programs and HIV/AIDS programs. In this network of providers, Planned Parenthood's more than 800 health centers have played a critical role for decades. While some may object to Planned Parenthood's role an abortion provider, its network of health centers is an essential part of the nation's safety net, delivering much needed health care to millions of people who lack other sources. More than 90 percent of the care that Planned Parenthood consists of basic preventive services such as family planning, screenings for cancer and blood pressure, and testing for HIV and other STIs. Planned Parenthood's health centers specialize in reproductive health care in many parts of our country, a Planned Parenthood health center is only place women and young people can turn for these services.

Three percent of Planned Parenthood's work involves abortion, a service that is legal in this country and is not supported by taxpayer dollars. While people may disagree over abortion policy, we cannot allow our differences to undermine the other services provided by this irreplaceable network. I believe that U.S. Senators of both parties will recognize this in the coming days, as they carefully assess the proposal from the House to bar Planned Parenthood from providing any service through federal programs.

I urge everyone to embrace the fundamental public health principles that have united us for decades. The national family planning program (Title X) and Planned Parenthood provide critical services to those least able to access primary health care. Eliminating Title X and barring Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds would irreparably damage the health of millions of women, their families and communities. We should debate our differences over abortion respectfully -- and separate them from the principles we agree on. I believe that is the best prescription for health for the American people, especially women, mothers and children.

Donna E. Shalala served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1993 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton. She served in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1980, as Assistant Secretary for Public Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is now president of the University of Miami.