Show of Support: State legislators propose package of women's-health legislation

"Pennsylvania has the opportunity to become a real leader on women's-health issues."

| December 18, 2013

As executive director for the Women's Law Project, Carol Tracy has had a front-row seat to years' worth of legislative attacks on women's reproductive health.

From fighting proposals for mandatory ultrasounds to legislation requiring expensive upgrades to abortion clinics and restricting abortion coverage on the state's health-care exchange, Tracy says, "We're all tired of being on the defensive. Now we're finally being proactive."

The counterstrike came Dec. 11, when the state legislature's bi-partisan Women's Health Caucus introduced a package of seven bills that take a "holistic, proactive approach to women's health," according to state Rep. Erin Molchany, a South Hills Democrat and member of the caucus.

"This package of bills is not only about women's health in a literal sense, but it's also an opportunity to ask, ‘How can we keep women and families strong and moving forward in the commonwealth?'" says Molchany, who co-sponsored a pay-equity bill that is part of the package. "Reproductive health is the cornerstone of women's health issues, but it's also about bringing forward legislation designed to make women's lives easier."

The caucus, co-chaired by state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill), began meeting earlier this year. The collection of bills — known as the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health — is just the first phase of legislation the group plans to introduce. Tracy says legislators were approached by activists with thoughts on 26 different women's health bills; she says she hopes those measures will be "rolled out one after the other" in the coming months and years.

The bills include efforts to: address pay equity; provide workplace accommodations for pregnant women; ensure sanitary conditions for nursing mothers; mandate "buffer zones" to offer clients of health-care facilities respite from anti-abortion protesters; increase access to breast and cervical cancer screenings; and guarantee equitable protection for victims of domestic violence. Another measure will address "intimate partner harassment" in the form of "revenge porn."

State Sen. Matt Smith (D-Mount Lebanon), a member of the caucus, says the harassment bill is a case of the "law finally catching up with society." Currently, if nude pictures or videos of a person are disseminated online, Smith says, a victim's only recourse is to sue. This law would allow for criminal penalties as well.

"[T]here shouldn't just be civil recourse" for such violations of privacy, Smith says. "It should also be a criminal offense that the law takes very seriously."

Smith also co-sponsored the legislation that would make proper accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace. He says the bill would ensure that employers make simple accommodations for pregnant women, like water breaks or the ability to sit on a stool instead of stand during their shift.

Smith says his legislation may seem simple to some, but the package of bills is meant to help women in their "day-to-day" lives.

Molchany's equitable-pay bill, for example, would more clearly define the factors that could lead to pay disparities "to ensure they are not based on or arrived from sex-based differences." Molchany says the bill would also help protect workers from retribution if they discuss their pay information with one another.

In Pennsylvania, according to a report this year from the Federal Joint Economic Committee, women earn about 20 percent less than men. Molchany says that can't continue.

"There are a lot of women who are sole [wage-earners] in Pennsylvania," Molchany says. "Hopefully this will help to end the pay disparity that exists by making sure Pennsylvania women aren't paid less simply because they are women."

Tracy, of the Women's Law Project, says that while the bills seem wide-ranging, so too are the threats women face across the state. She cites a study by the liberal Center for American Progress showing that Pennsylvania women ranking low on a variety of measures of health. Meanwhile, she says, "In 2011 we had a legislature that spent a third of its days trying to limit abortion."

"You can't silo women," Tracy adds. "Women's reproductive-health care is connected to workforce treatment, which is connected to economic security, which is connected to their health care. A woman's health suffers due to persistent discrimination.

"This package of bills addresses that in a very thoughtful, deliberative manner."

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