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Opinion: Colorado reproductive health services are being compromised by federal gag order

In the past 10 years, fewer young women in Jefferson County — and Colorado as a whole — have experienced an unplanned pregnancy than ever before.

That’s not a coincidence. It’s not a sign of a generation’s changing attitudes toward sex. It’s not a victory for abstinence. It’s a direct result of the availability, affordability and accessibility of birth control options such as long-acting, reversible contraceptives, or LARCs. 

Margaret Huffman

In 2009, Colorado began its Family Planning Initiative with the goal of reducing the rate of teen and unintended pregnancies and abortions. Working with local health departments, like Jefferson County Public Health, the state used Title X funding to help provide women with a low income increased access to low- or no-cost LARCs and other contraceptives.

By 2017, the statewide teen birth rate had been cut in half. In Jefferson County alone, that rate has decreased by nearly 70 percent, according to a new report analyzing births to women aged 15-24, released in May 2019.

That means more young women in our county have not had to face the barriers that come along with an unintended pregnancy, like poorer health outcomes, difficulty advancing their careers and education or the need to rely more on public assistance. 

This is a significant victory for Jefferson County, and for Colorado. It’s also facing a serious threat to its sustainability. 

Changes to the Title X program, made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are compromising the reproductive health services women in our community can receive.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The program now emphasizes natural family planning methods – such as cycle planning, fertility awareness and abstinence – over evidence-based, scientifically-proven contraceptives, such as birth control pills, patches, implants, IUDs and more.

While knowledge of one’s cycle and fertility can be helpful, these methods alone have not been proved to provide the safety and efficacy of scientific contraceptive methods and are an unnecessary gamble in a day and age when such improved methods of birth control are available. 

In addition, though no federal funding has ever gone to the provision of abortions, nurses in Title X-funded clinics now can’t mention abortion as an option or make referrals to safe providers when asked.

If clinics turn away this funding so they can continue to discuss all options with a client, they risk seeing that money funnel into facilities that provide non-medical family planning services.

Recent calls for Title X funding applications have specifically sought out these types of facilities, which pose a significant threat to women’s health, and to a great degree the health of the public. We’ve already begun seeing these risky, non-medical facilities pop up nationwide. 

This regulation change has effectively put a gag order on medical providers and compromised the care of the young women in Jefferson County, Colorado and the U.S. as a whole.

If we turn back the clock and stop providing medically-approved contraceptives in lieu of outdated and unproven alternatives, the teen birth rate in Colorado will rise again. LARCs and medically-approved contraceptives have resulted in landmark advances in reproductive health in Colorado – there’s no question about it.

Science has made this possible. As medical providers, we are beholden to science and to the well-being of our clients. Federal health policies should be, too. 

Margaret Huffman is the Director of Community Health Services at Jefferson County Public Health. She has worked in public health for more than 20 years, in both Jefferson and Boulder Counties and at the state health department.

Rising Sun