On Tuesday evening at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, the public gathered to hear from a panel of experts on women’s health care in Massachusetts. Hosted in partnership with WBUR and moderated by the station’s Carey Goldberg, topics of discussion included reproductive rights, health care disparities, and Title X funding.
“It is our mission to educate and to empower,” said Mary Grant, president of the Kennedy Institute, in her opening remarks. “With the run-up to the midterm elections and as the U.S. Senate considers the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, this conversation is timely.”
According to Grant, the Kennedy Institute released research in July that indicated health care was the number one issue among voters. Furthermore, the July Kaiser Health tracking poll found that 52 percent of voters do not want the Affordable Care Act to be repealed.
The panel—entitled “What’s at Stake for Women’s Health Care?”— was composed of Jennifer Childs-Roshak, the president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and the president of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts; Monica Valdes Lupi, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission; and Marylou Sudders, the secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Goldberg opened the discussion by raising the issue of how the pending nomination of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will impact the laws and policies related to women’s health care. More specifically, she asked what the consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade or the Affordable Care Act will be across the nation and in Massachusetts.
“Trump promised that he would nominate someone who would overturn Roe v. Wade and decimate the rights of many people around the country,” Childs-Rosak said. “I am concerned about this as we all are.”
Valdes Lupi explained that in many ways Massachusetts stands in a better position than other states to handle the potential effects of the nomination. She stressed the importance of being proactive and preparing for what is to come, but “worries about fatigue, given all of the crazy issues that are coming our way.”
“We are in a different place than some of our neighboring states,” she said. “We’re the envy.”
In terms of concrete changes that could occur in Massachusetts should Roe v. Wade be overturned, Sudders emphasized that the state will be protected by its strong laws that ensure women’s access to the full scope of reproductive services. She can envision a country in which Massachusetts becomes a sanctuary state for women seeking these services. Even so, Sudders fears a widening health disparity in low-income and immigrant communities in Massachusetts as a result of changes at the federal level.
“I will just say it’s extraordinary to me that we’re at this moment in time in history that we are—that there’s such a threat to Roe v. Wade,” she said.
Childs-Roshak echoed Sudder’s prediction of Massachusetts becoming a sanctuary state, adding that the majority of the country could be stripped of access to reproductive services. The
West Coast and Northeast will be the only protected areas.
Goldberg noted that Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has stepped in to fill gaps where the federal government defunded a program, inquiring as to any future threats the state should anticipate.
According to Sudders, the most recent threat has been to Title X, which funds family planning services. In the spring, it seemed as though the federal government intended to cease funding for the program, which amounts to around $7 million for Massachusetts. Baker filed a budget to cover funding of Title X should the federal government cease funding.
“So the state can’t pick up every time that the federal government decides it’s not going to fund all the things that the federal government has funded for Massachusetts,” said Sudders. “We are very clear that as these things come up that are very important to us and the ethos of our state, the state will step up.”
According to Childs-Roshak, Title X’s preventive services are a primary reason why the country is at a 30-year low for teen pregnancies, unintended pregnancies, and abortions.
“The idea that these preventive program that really work are being threatened is really abominable because the progress that we’ve made is really incredibly important,” she said. “Thankfully we do live in a state where not only access to health care, but access to common sense, cost effective, empowering preventive care like sexual and reproductive health care is a priority.”
The conversation then turned to the ways in which Massachusetts can help other states that may not enjoy the same level of protection.
Childs-Roshak emphasized that even within Massachusetts there are still areas that need improvement. There are towns and cities throughout the state with a teen birth rate five to six times the state average.
“There is still a lot of work to be done in communities of color, in low-income families, low-income communities, geographically dispersed communities where access to health care, even in our state, remains a barrier,” she said.
Featured Image by Eric Haynes, Courtesy of Edward M. Kennedy Institute