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The Planet
The Case of the Missing Contraceptives

by Lillian Miller

Working on the Global Population and Environment Program can have its ups and downs. Take, for example, New Jersey Chapter volunteer Bonnie Tillery. In 2001, she mobilized area residents to write postcards and letters and helped get 30 co-sponsors for a bill before the New Jersey legislature requiring private insurance companies to cover prescription contraceptive drugs and devices as much as they cover other prescriptions.

But when she tried to recruit members for the chapter Population Committee, the only attendees were a man and his dog. "We had a good discussion," Tillery reports. (At least the dog was neutered, she adds.)

Tillery's roller coaster experience mirrors the Global Population and Environment Program's year in 2001. While it suffered losses for international family planning thanks to the Bush administration, the program ended the year stronger and more united.

The first setback came in January when President Bush, on his third day in office, reinstated the global gag rule. The rule withholds U.S. funds from overseas family planning organizations that provide legal abortions or even talk about abortion, even though such efforts are paid for with non-U.S. funds.

At the federal level, the program is lobbying for the same thing Tillery is working for in New Jersey -- a redress to inequities in contraceptive coverage. Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. insurance plans cover all five FDA approved reversible methods of contraception (oral contraceptives, Norplant, IUD's, diaphragms and Depo-Provera), and only about half of all plans cover any of these methods.

Annette Souder"It's unfair that most insurance companies cover prescription drugs, but exclude contraceptives for women," explains Annette Souder, senior representative for the program. "Affordable access to family planning is critical to slowing population growth."

Souder knows that public education is critical to spreading this message. To help get it out, the program relies on the good work of its many volunteers.

New population volunteers can join a successful mentoring system in which seasoned activists share their experiences and ideas. Fifteen mentors have signed up, according to Todd Daniel, chair of the Centennial Group in Marietta, Ga., and leader of the mentor program.

Being a mentor is far from a thankless task. One mentor, Anita King, was recently awarded a certificate of appreciation for her 10 years as population chair of Massachusetts' Pioneer Group. She has worked mostly with high school and college students, on population and other environmental issues, recently getting petition signatures urging greater SUV fuel economy and stronger diesel-fuel standards, for example. "It turns into a social activity," she says. She finds that high school kids are especially interested in the population issue. "They are amazed to learn there are women in Africa who have 10 or 11 children and don't know how to have fewer."

For James Hufnagel, an activist with the Niagara Group in New York, "Population is a bedrock environmental issue." In his hometown, he lobbied extensively to keep sex education in the school district's curriculum. He prevailed. "When you win the battle, it just charges you up to keep on keeping on."

Joan HoltzFor the program as a whole, the year ended on a hopeful note when Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope was a featured speaker at a town meeting hosted by the United Nations Population Fund and Planned Parenthood. According to Joan Holtz, a national Population Committee member, the meeting, which addressed population and family planning issues, was a "wild smashing success with standing room only."

New Year's Resolution: Overturn the global gag rule and pass an Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraception Coverage bill, which would require private insurance companies in the United States to cover FDA-approved prescription contraceptives to the same extent as they cover other prescription drugs.

Try the Club's Take Action e-mail alert system to send your representative a letter urging support improving insurance coverage of contraceptives.

Caption: Hear Ye, Hear Ye: Representing the Club's Global Population and Environment Committee, director Anette Souder, above, and Joan Holtz, left, engage in a "town meeting" hosted by the United Nations Population Fund and Planned Parenthood. Dian Harrison, top left, president of Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, is among the featured speakers at the San Francisco event.

More on Global Population.

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