Inside Alaska's New "War on Women"

"No one is prohibited from having birth control because of economic reasons," says an Alaska state senator.

| Fri Mar. 7, 2014 11:16 AM EST

On Wednesday, a Republican state senator in Alaska took to the floor to explain that the government should not pay for family planning services for low-income women, because anyone can afford birth control. "Even the most [sexually] active folks don't need to spend more than $2 or $3 a day for covering their activity," state Sen. Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River) said. He explained that it's easy for women to get access to birth control in Alaska, given that they can get it delivered via Alaska Airlines' express delivery program.

Dyson was talking about birth control as part of the debate on a controversial abortion bill. He is one of six Republicans senators cosponsoring the fast-moving bill, which would stop low-income women in the state from using Medicaid to fund abortions, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to "avoid a threat of serious risk to life or physical health of a woman." The bill outlines a list of 22 conditions that would qualify a woman for a Medicaid-funded abortion, such as risk of coma or seizures. Under Alaska law, since 2001, a woman could still only use state Medicaid to pay for an abortion that was "medically necessary"—but the definition was left up to the woman and her doctor. Critics of the bill say that the bill's new definition is much more restrictive. (Last year, more than 37 percent of abortions reported in Alaska were covered by Medicaid.) Recently, Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services tried to enforce the same restrictions contained in the bill, but Planned Parenthood sued the state over that decision. A court put the regulations on hold as the case unfolds. If this bill passes, it is expected to be challenged as part of that lawsuit. And it's expected to pass—Alaska has a Republican majority in the House, and Republican Gov. Sean Parnell opposes abortion.

Democrats in the state have been trying to limit the bill's effects on women, successfully adding an amendment to this bill last year that would have allowed at least 14,000 low-income Alaskans without children to get their family planning services—including STD testing and birth control—covered by Medicaid. (Right now, Alaska has chosen not to accept money through the government's Medicaid expansion.) But in February, the House Finance Committee stripped the amendment from the bill. State Sen. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage), who proposed that amendment, says that if the state really wants to prevent abortions, lawmakers should focus on giving women access to birth control. "We know that the best and most efficient way to reduce abortions is to ensure that all women have access to contraceptive services. We do not understand the opposition to doing this," Gardner says, characterizing the Republican opposition as part of "the continuing war on women."

Debate has been ongoing about the bill, and whether the birth control amendment should be added back in. At a Senate floor meeting on March 5, Dyson explained that low-income women don't need their birth control paid for, because it's already easy to get: "No one is prohibited from having birth control because of economic reasons," he said, arguing that women can buy condoms for the cost of a can of pop and get the pill for the price of four to five lattes each month. He added, "By the way, you can go on the internet. You can order these things by mail. You can make phone calls and get it delivered by mail. You all know that Alaska Airlines will do Gold Streak, and get things quickly that way." (When reached by Mother Jones, Dyson says that he was referring to the fact that even women in tiny villages in Alaska can get their prescriptions delivered.)

Dyson's "latte" estimate is correct for the cheapest brands of the generic birth control pill—but it doesn't take into account the cost of doctor's visits to get a prescription, and alternative methods, such as IUDs. Additionally, according to our own birth control calculator, small co-pays on birth control add up to big expenses for women who don't have insurance, not including the costs of a doctors' visit associated with getting birth control. For example, a 25-year-old woman without insurance who takes the birth control pill until she hits menopause (estimated at age 51) will end up spending about $150 a month, or $46,650 over her child-bearing years (about $8,290 with insurance). Dyson told Mother Jones, "My guess is that most of those women, if they weren't able to pay, their partner would be able to. I don't see the costs being that big of an issue, in reality."

According to the National Institute for Reproductive Health, uninsured women are less likely to consistently use birth control due to high costs, and low-income women are four times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy than their higher-income counterparts. (The Obama administration's birth control mandate, which requires private insurers to cover family planning services, is changing that—it has increased the percentage of women who currently don't have to pay for the pill from 15 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2013.)

"It is frankly shameful for Sen. Dyson to claim that low-income people are buying lattes instead of birth control," says Jessica Cler, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. "It's truly puzzling that Dyson and his like-minded colleagues, including Gov. Sean Parnell and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, think that they are responsible for making the personal medical decisions of Alaskan women."

Dyson disagrees, adding, "I don't think public money ought to be paying for Viagra, either."

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