Religious leaders pray for restored access, funding for women's health


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on March 4, 2013 at 7:28 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 5 at 8:41 AM

AUSTIN -- Wearing the vestments of their various faiths, religious leaders Monday raised their voices in prayer. 
"We believe that women of all incomes have the right to access to preventive health care, including birth control," prayed Rev. Valda Jean Combs, pastor of St. James United Methodist in Waco.
Gathered in the rotunda of the Texas Capitol Extension, leaders from Christian and Jewish faiths voiced frustration with funding for women's health care services. Their prayer included a plea to state lawmakers to restore the $73 million cut from family planning services during 2011 and to make contraception more readily available to low-income women.
"For us this is part of our faith commitment that cares for all of God's creation, all of God's people," said Larry Bethune, pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin. "Particularly for the stability of families and for the care of women and their health."
"We believe that women should have and families should have the opportunity to make choices about when they're going to have children and how many children they're going to have," said Bethune. "Women need to have access to health care, to good counsel and to clinics that can provide that health care before, during and after pregnancy."
Those gathered for Monday's event also expressed dismay over the results of the law passed by the 82nd Texas Legislature to exclude providers that perform abortions or are affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Medicaid Women's Health Program (WHP). The law banned the state's single largest provider Planned Parenthood from the program, resulting in the closure of dozens of women's health clinics and the loss of roughly $30 million in federal funding for women's health services.
"I think abortion issue, it's just part of a continuing culture war," said Rabbi Neal Katz of Congregation Beth El in Tyler. "But I do believe that it's a distraction from the issue that we're trying to focus on, which is women having access to good health care, to family planning, to birth control."    
The issue of birth control became a topic of national political debate after the Catholic Church, which is opposed to contraceptives, criticized the White House for requirements under the Affordable Care Act that would have required insurance plans for employees of businesses run by Catholic organizations to include contraceptive coverage.
Sara Hutchinson of Washington, D.C. based Catholics for Choice argues the opposition to contraception is maintained by the Church hierarchy, but is not espoused by many practicing Catholics.
"The 68 million Catholics in the United States, the almost 7.2 million Catholics here in Texas disagree with the bishops on that issue," said Hutchinson. "They actually support birth control and access to it for the least of us."
When it comes to funding for preventive care and contraception, there are signs of compromise. 
"We have to face the reality that there are people who cannot afford health care," state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) told KVUE Monday. "We can save the state money in the long-run by detecting cancer early, by treating sexually transmitted diseases and preventing unwanted pregnancies."
A physician and member of the Senate Finance Committee, Deuell supported the 2011 law to effectively exclude Planned Parenthood from the Women's Health Program. At the same time, he argued for a smaller cut in funding for women's health services than was ultimately approved.
This session, Deuell says restoring funding for women's health services and affordable contraceptives is a bipartisan priority. Last week the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved a $100 million increase in funding for women's health care, a move Deuell says is rooted in fiscal reality. 
"When someone's low income and they don't have access to health care and they have a baby at the wrong time, then more often than not Medicaid ends up paying for that baby and that child for its care," said Deuell. "In a perfect world the state would not, should not have to provide that care, but it's not a perfect world and there are people that need our assistance, and I think it's being smart to do that."
The majority of the increased funding will go to primary care, including physical exams, pap smears and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. Leaders at Monday's event said the committee's vote is a good sign, but there is more work to do if the women's health services are to be repaired completely.
"We're quite concerned that a sufficient amount of that be targeted towards family planning and birth control and that clinics be available for all of the women in Texas," said Bethune.
"There are people of faith on all sides of these issues," said Bethune. "But surely we can agree that women need to have access to correct information and to those resources that will allow them to make the right choices within their faith tradition and under the law. We recognize that not all faith traditions agree about these issues. We continue in conversation with one another, but a part of what today was about was recognizing that there are religious voices on the other side of this issue too."

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