Recently Republican presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to make extreme statements on women’s health — with every single leading candidate taking the unpopular position that they would block Planned Parenthood’s health centers from receiving federal funds, and Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz pushing for Congress to shut down the government over providing basic reproductive health care to Planned Parenthood’s millions of patients across the country.
But with candidates vying to win an extraordinarily crowded primary race, some have swung so far to the right, they’ve ventured into the flat-out medically impossible. It looks like the Republican presidential field is in need of a sex education lesson of their own.
LESSON 1: Yes, pregnancy can sometimes be life-threatening.
In the last Republican presidential debate, Scott Walker refused to say he would be in favor of allowing a woman to access abortion, even if it meant saving her life.
During a post-GOP debate interview, Walker clarified that it’s not that he’s in favor of letting a woman die, per se, he just doesn’t believe a woman’s life could ever really be at risk during pregnancy.
Hannity: “One of the things that came up in the debate for you was the issue of abortion and the exemption for whether or not the mother’s life is in jeopardy.”
Scott Walker: "I said it's a false choice, there is always a better option out there. I've said for years medically there is always a better choice than between the life of an unborn baby and the mother, so that's just a false choice out there. That was my point, there is always better choices out there. Medically that's just a non-issue."
Unfortunately, pregnancy can be life-threatening for some women, creating instances where an abortion is medically necessary. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, more than 600 women die each year due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth, and more would die if they didn’t have access to abortion. Circumstances can range from an ectopic pregnancy — a life-threatening condition where a fertilized egg becomes attached in the wrong place in a woman’s body, most often the fallopian tube — to pre-eclampsia — a hypertensive pregnancy disorder marked by a pregnant woman’s high blood pressure that is a leading cause of maternal and infant death in the United States.
LESSON 2: Women’s health care is sometimes different than men’s health care
At a town hall in Englewood, Colo., Aug. 25, Jeb Bush claimed that Planned Parenthood should be defunded because:
Jeb Bush has made it clear that he doesn’t value women’s health care — while governor he funnelled millions of taxpayer dollars into ineffective abstinence-only programs and cut funds for crucial family planning programs and teen pregnancy prevention programs, leaving Florida tied for last place when it comes to women’s health. But it appears there may be a deeper problem, in that he may not understand what women’s health is in the first place.
Women should have routine visits with a health care provider that include things like pelvic exams, Pap tests and screenings for breast cancer — all vital health care needs for women which can in some cases save their lives. In addition, 99 percent of sexually active women in the United States have used at least one contraceptive method — 67 percent choose a non-permanent method of contraception such as the pill or an IUD.
In 2013, Planned Parenthood’s health centers provided:
- 4.5 million tests and treatment for sexually transmitted infections
- 3.6 million contraception related services
- 935,573 cancer screenings including breast exams and Pap tests
- 1.1 million pregnancy tests and prenatal services
Jeb Bush has yet to clarify the range of services he defines as women’s health care.
LESSON 3: Contraception, by definition, prevents pregnancy
Rick Santorum has been clear in the past that he is ideologically opposed to contraception, and pushes for abstinence only programs instead of evidence-based sex education. However, his recent statements have also made clear that he may need a little help fully understanding the way contraception works.
In a press conference, the former senator said:
“I don’t think there’s any numbers out there that suggest that access to contraception actually reduces the number of abortion. I think there are pretty good studies out there, pretty compelling studies, that show there is no real correlation, and hasn’t been for quite some time.”
People have used birth control control methods for thousands of years to help prevent pregnancy. While there’s no one “best” method of birth control, today there are many safe and effective birth control methods available.
Family planning services available through Medicaid and Title X of the U.S. Public Health Service Act help women prevent 2 million unintended pregnancies each year. Without these family planning services, the numbers of unintended pregnancies and abortions would be nearly two-thirds higher than they are now. A number of studies have shown a correlation between access to birth control and lower abortion rates, including a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that access to birth control lowered pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates; while a study by investigators at Washington University reports that providing birth control to women at no cost substantially reduces unplanned pregnancies and cuts abortion rates by a range of 62 to 78 percent compared to the national rate.
LESSON 4: Menstruation is a normal, healthy part of a woman's life
Just after the last GOP presidential debate, Donald Trump received flak for what many perceived to be a dismissive remark about Megyn Kelly, implying that she was asking him pointed questions because at the time she had her period. As he said to CNN:
"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever."
Since Donald Trump seems to be unclear, menstruation is when a woman’s lining of her uterus flows out through her vagina. Menstruation usually happens each month, and lasts from 3 to 7 days. A normal menstrual cycle can be as short as 21 days or longer than 35 days, though for most women, the menstrual cycle lasts 25-30 days.
Once your period ends, hormones cause some of the eggs in your ovaries to start to ripen or mature. The hormones also cause the lining of the uterus to thicken. About half way through your menstrual cycle, one mature egg leaves the ovary. After leaving the ovary, the egg then travels through a fallopian tube toward your uterus. As the egg travels through the fallopian tube, a spongy, soft lining continues to build up in the uterus.
The lining is where a fertilized egg may attach for pregnancy to begin. If pregnancy does not happen, the lining breaks down and the blood and tissue flow from your uterus through your cervix and out of your body. This is your period. During an average period, you will lose 4 teaspoons of menstrual fluid.
We believe it is unlikely that Megyn Kelly’s questions for Trump had anything to do with menstruation.
LESSON 5: HPV is one of the most common STDs in the United States, and it’s contagious
After her granddaughter received an HPV vaccine, Carly Fiorina defended opting out of the vaccination, saying that it was an “esoteric” vaccine for a disease that is “not communicable”:
“I think when we’re talking about some of these more esoteric immunizations, then I think absolutely a parent should have a choice and a school district shouldn’t be able to say, ‘Sorry, your kid can’t come to school for a disease that’s not communicable, not contagious, and where there really isn’t any proof that [vaccinations] are necessary at this point.’”
HPV is not only contagious, it’s one of the most common STDs — so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact — usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Most forms of HPV have no harmful effect at all, and go away by themselves. Some forms of HPV, however, may lead to genital warts while other types of HPV may cause abnormal cells to develop — which, if undetected and untreated, can lead to cancer.
The HPV vaccine is given in a series of three shots, and protects against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts.
LESSON 6: Pregnancy
In an interview on CNN, Marco Rubio responded to an inquiry into the non-scientific base of his anti-abortion policy plan, stating:
“[regarding a human embryo]...science has concluded, absolutely it has. What else can it be? It cannot turn into an animal. It can’t turn into a donkey. The only thing that becomes is a human being.”
Rubio then added a page to his website, emphasizing “a human life won’t become a donkey or a cat.”
Scientifically, we absolutely agree with him — it is unlikely if not impossible that a human embryo will develop into a cat or a donkey. However, by bringing that up as an example, we’re concerned Rubio may not be clear on how pregnancy happens — and recommend he brush up on his background.
LESSON 7: Plan B is different from RU-486
While he has a medical background, Dr. Ben Carson seems to have conflated medication abortion and emergency contraception.
In an interview with FOX, Dr. Carson said he would be okay with exceptions to an abortion ban for survivors of rape or incest, but that a medication abortion should only be prescribed in the emergency room, adding:
“I would hope that they would very quickly avail themselves of the emergency room, and in the emergency room, they have the ability to administer RU-486 and other possibilities before you have a developing fetus.”
Emergency contraception (sometimes called EC or Plan B) is a safe and effective way to prevent pregnancy for up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex, and works to help prevent pregnancy by keeping a woman's ovary from releasing an egg for longer than usual so it cannot be fertilized by sperm.
On the other hand, medication abortion (sometimes still called RU-486) terminates a pregnancy. In general it's used up to 63 days — 9 weeks — after the first day of a woman's last period, though a few states have laws that limit the use of the abortion pill to 49 days.
Context around Planned Parenthood leading into tonight’s debate:
There’s a lot of noise about women’s health, and Planned Parenthood in particular, from the Republican primary field. Here are the three things to know:
As six national polls have shown, 71% of voters oppose shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood’s funding, and an overwhelming majority oppose all efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood’s favorability rating remains higher than top Republican candidates running for president, higher than the Supreme Court’s, and higher than the NRA’s. The public knows Planned Parenthood well — and supports Planned Parenthood strongly.
Attacks on Planned Parenthood and women’s health might have short-term gain for Republican candidates in their primary, but it is a recipe for defeat in a general election. In 2012, the Republican primary was a race to the bottom on women’s health — driving the largest gender gap in recorded history in the general election.