Women with little or no health insurance would be eligible for free, long-lasting birth control under a program proposed by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Announced by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at a community college in Alexandria on Friday, the $9 million federal grant would cover intrauterine devices and skin implants as well as outreach to eligible women, training for clinicians and a study of the program’s impact.
“This is all about educating and empowering women to decide when and if they become pregnant,” Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said at Northern Virginia Community College. “When women have access to this contraception, they choose on their own time when to start a family.”
Northam, who is running for governor in 2017, has been pushing for such a program for months. He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in August on the issue and argued for expanded access to birth control during a Brookings Institution event in October.
On Friday, he pointed to a similar program in Colorado that led to a 40 percent decline in the birthrate among teens between 2009 and 2013. The Colorado governor’s office said the state saved $42.5 million in health-care expenditures associated with teens giving birth and the abortion rate for 15- to 19-year-olds in participating counties fell 35 percent.
The devices would be distributed through Department of Health centers across the state. There is no requirement in Virginia for minors to have parental consent before having a contraceptive device implanted.
“It’s going to help women, and it’s also going to help the Commonwealth of Virginia economically,” Northam, a pediatric neurosurgeon, said of the program.
Although it relies on federal funds, the contraceptive program requires the approval of Virginia’s legislature, now controlled by Republicans, before it can be launched.
A spokesman for the Virginia House and Senate said lawmakers would review the proposal as part of the budget process. This year’s legislative session begins Jan. 13.
Northam said that reducing teen pregnancies and teen abortions is a bipartisan goal.
“The less unintended pregnancies we have in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the better, and also, the less abortions that we have, the better.”
But he also acknowledged that Republicans may not agree with this approach. In 2011, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) cut funding for teen-pregnancy prevention programs that provided sex education and birth control. A year later, the legislature passed a bill that would have required transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. It was ultimately killed amid backlash against the invasive procedure. Conservative religious groups in Colorado have opposed that state’s program.
“I remind all women in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a group of legislators, most of whom are men, shouldn’t be telling women what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies,” Northam said — the only explicitly political note struck by the soft-spoken lieutenant governor.
The small crowd of local politicians, health-care providers and advocates applauded.
“Certain people are going to notice” the budget request, state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) said after the event. Opposition to birth-control distribution on the grounds that it will encourage teenagers to have sex, she said, was “naively based and ill-informed. . . . Teenagers make decisions in the heat of the moment, and whether they have access to birth control or not doesn’t factor in.”
Several counties in Northern Virginia have already received private grants to expand long-lasting contraceptive access. Stephen A. Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, said that IUD or implant use among patients has increased dramatically since its program began in 2013 — from 15 that year to 77 in 2015. The vast majority of women who come to their family planning clinic, he said, are uninsured, and without the federal money continuing the program would be difficult.