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Copyright 2000 The Chronicle Publishing Co.  
The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 364 words

HEADLINE: Gender Discrimination -- When Will It Ever End?

IT SEEMS INCREDIBLE, but it's true. Thirty-five years after the women's movement began, large numbers of American women still have to pay for their own contraception -- as well as abortions and pregnancies.

Insurance companies, which have long regarded the male biological experience as what's "normal," have viewed women's reproductive health needs as "additional," or "extra" -- in other words, not necessary for men. When Viagra was first introduced in 1998, for example, insurance companies raced to provide what they instantly understood to be vital -- medical help for impotent men. Although they rationed the number of pills, they couldn't imagine ignoring men's sexual concerns.

In response, women's rights groups loudly and justly protested that contraception was no less important than Viagra.

Now, in a belated but much welcome decision, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which hears complaints about race and gender employment discrimination, has ruled that insurance companies must cover female contraceptives if they also pay for other preventive medicines or services. (Don't even ask what kind of medical condition Viagra prevents.)

Currently, only 15 percent of health plans cover all prescribed methods of contraception, according to the nonpartisan Alan Guttmacher Institute, the New York-based reproduction health research group.

Although the EEOC ruling covers only the employer of the two women who filed the complaint, the finding of gender discrimination now exposes insurance companies to a flood of class-action litigation.

It's about time. For far too long, our nation's health policies have neglected women's health needs. People rant about the rate of teenage pregnancy, but insurance companies don't pay for contraception. Abortion is legal in the United States, but ever since 1977, the federal government stopped covering abortions for poor women.

Gender equality requires many changes in our lives, at home and at the workplace. But the precondition for female emancipation, as women have repeatedly said for over three decades, is the right to control their own bodies. Anything less is unacceptable -- and illegal.

LOAD-DATE: December 18, 2000

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