April 8, 2011

The U.S. Capitol building is just 30 miles west of the Maryland State House, but right now it might as well be another world.

As we write this, Democrats and Republicans in Washington can’t come to agreement on a budget for the federal government, risking a government shutdown, and funding for family planning is one of the main sticking points. But it doesn’t have to be. Our experience working on bipartisan state legislation to expand these vital services in Maryland shows why.

People say that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, but family planning proves them wrong. The Family Planning Works Act — passed last week by the Maryland General Assembly — might as well have been called the “Win-Win-Win Act of 2011.”

First, and most important, this issue is a winner for the health of women and babies. Our legislation will provide 33,000 low- and moderate-income women in our state with family planning services, including pelvic exams; screenings for cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes; testing for sexually transmitted infections; pregnancy counseling; and, when appropriate, contraception.

Getting effective family planning to more women can help Maryland — one of the richest states in the nation — improve its dismal record of being the 13th-worst state for low-birth-weight babies and ninth-worst in infant mortality. Studies show that when a woman delays motherhood until she and her partner are ready to welcome a child into the world, their baby will be born healthier.

Family planning is also a winner for the state and federal budgets. It sounds impossible, but even in these tough fiscal times, expanding these services to tens of thousands of women — at a cost of $5.5 million per year, paid mostly by a generous federal Medicaid match — will save the state and federal governments tens of millions of dollars a year.

How can that be? First, one must understand how things work in Maryland right now. (Or, to be more accurate, how they don’t work.)

To protect the health of mothers and babies, we provide coverage for prenatal, birthing and neonatal care to low- and moderate-income women and their newborns. For each pregnancy whose costs are paid for by the state, Maryland spends nearly $20,000.

At the same time, we also offer family planning services — but only for a woman who has already given birth to her first child, and only if the state helped pay for her pregnancy care. That’s quite an odd policy, of course, because family planning is best begun before a family is started.

It is costly to state and federal budgets to pay for unintended pregnancies. Based on the experience of states that have similarly made family planning more available, experts at the Guttmacher Institute project that there will be 7,980 fewer unintended pregancies (including 2,650 fewer abortions) per year in our state, saving Maryland as much as much as $39.5 million per year.

Finally, the issue is also a winner politically. If family planning shows how we can have our cake and eat it, too, then bipartisanship is the icing.

Family planning isn’t a Democratic issue, and it’s not a Republican issue. Progressives like Heather should support it because it’s good for the health of women and babies. Conservatives like Michael should support it because it dramatically reduces the number of abortions and saves taxpayer dollars. Everyone should support family planning because it improves lives while saving money.

That’s a big reason why Democrats and Republicans in the Maryland General Assembly joined together to pass the Family Planning Works Act by overwhelming bipartisan majorities — 121-15 in the House and 39-7 in the Senate. Despite our many differences, this bill helped us reach across the aisle to move our state forward.

And it’s not just Maryland. Progessive leaders like California and Oregon have made this change, but so have conservative bellweathers such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

That’s why we’re calling on the federal government to follow our lead. Surely if we can come together in Annapolis to expand family planning services, Democrats and Republicans in Congress ought to be able to find real common ground on the same issue.

If states are the laboratories of democracy, family planning is a formula that works. Better yet, it’s a recipe for a cake we can have and eat, too.

Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) and Michael Smigiel (R-Cecil) are members of the Maryland House of Delegates.