300 Reasons Why the Media's Messing Up the Birth Control Story

Cable news channels hosted only one expert from the public health community during a week of coverage over the controversy surrounding the Obama administration's decision to require most employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception. By contrast, they hosted 300 guest appearances from the political or religious communities.

On January 20, the Obama administration announced that nonprofit employers -- including those connected to religious organizations -- would be required to provide health insurance coverage for contraception. After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops registered their opposition to the rule, conservative media figures accused the administration of engaging in a "war on the Catholic church."

On February 10, President Obama announced an accommodation that would allow insurance companies to directly offer contraception coverage to employees whose employers have religious objections to such coverage.

During a five-day period when the controversy reached a boiling point, cable news channels hosted a total of 301 guest appearances, but only one of those guests was a public health expert. The rest were political figures or religious leaders.

While ovarian cancer remains hard to detect despite being one of the "deadliest of cancers that affect the female reproductive system," contraception use is correlated with reduced risk of the disease. The American Cancer Society has estimated that "30,000 cases of ovarian cancer worldwide could be prevented each year" through contraception use alone.

As noted by Huffington Post:

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that roughly 14 percent of birth control prescriptions are written for non-contraceptive purposes, helping some 1.5 million women with issues like ovarian cancer, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and endometrial cancer. Their stories, filled with difficult details of medical trauma and personal sacrifice, aren't usually the fodder for piqued political conversation, at least not until this week.

Public health studies have demonstrated that contraception coverage leads to "a substantial decrease in unintended pregnancies, and by extension, abortions:" In January 12, 2011, testimony to the IOM, the Guttmacher Institute noted, "the scientific evidence" all pointed to the same conclusion, that insurance "must include coverage for the full range" of contraception. A February 7, 2012, Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger editorial called contraception coverage "a matter of public health" and noted: "Spacing pregnancies improves birth outcomes. And if all women had equal access to affordable contraceptives, there would be far fewer abortions and unprepared mothers."

Doctors and reproductive health experts agree that contraception coverage is a health issue. Six hundred physicians -- including 70 Catholics -- recently signed a letter supporting the administration's requirement that employers provide contraception coverage in their health plans, calling it a health care requirement:

"As a doctor or medical student, I support the decision by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to ensure that women have access to cost-free contraception regardless of who their employers are (with exceptions for houses of worship). The religious beliefs of an employer should not be a barrier to women receiving the care they need."

In a 2004 editorial in Contraception, Ann Hwang, then with the UCSF Center for Reproductive Health & Research; David Grimes, Vice President of Family Health International; and Wayne Shields, President and CEO of Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, concluded: "Preventing unintended pregnancies averts maternal morbidity and mortality, improves child health and yields important economic benefits to society as well."

Access to contraceptive care is a health care issue. Health care experts should be part of the discussion.

Note about methodology:

Media Matters reviewed all daytime, afternoon, and evening programming on MSNBC, CNN, and FOX between February 6, 2012, and February 10, 2012, for media reports that focused on the contraception debate controversy. Given that Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. John Barrasso, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius all currently hold a primary occupation as politicians or government officials, and not as physicians or public health experts, they were not considered as such for the purposes of this study.

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