is cochair of WomenVote PA, president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and author of "With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose"
is executive director of the Women's Law Project and cochair of the project's WomenVote PA initiative
The Women's Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania legislature recently announced the first phase of a comprehensive agenda for women's health. This is a groundbreaking approach to addressing the unique health needs and concerns of women that could serve as a model for other states.
Historically, the Pennsylvania legislature has spent unprecedented time and energy on creating barriers to contraception and abortion, rather than enacting legislation that would improve the health of women, including, ironically, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
But the bipartisan, bicameral Women's Health Caucus, led by State Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) and State Sens. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) and Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), has made history. It took a proactive, positive approach by addressing a wide range of legal and policy barriers to women's health and equality, recognizing that women's reproductive rights and health are the keystone.
The agenda is not born of ideology, but reflects the very real struggles of women and families throughout Pennsylvania.
The first phase of the agenda is seven pieces of legislation, including measures that would protect pregnant women in the workplace, fill gaps in protection for nursing mothers at work, ensure unimpeded and safe access to women's health centers, strengthen the equal-pay law and prohibit wage secrecy, extend health screenings to more women, stop intimate-partner harassment, and ensure that domestic-violence victims are not punished for contacting law enforcement.
One of the key pieces of legislation would establish a 15-foot buffer zone to protect women's clinics. The prime sponsor of this bill is State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.), a former clinic escort who has seen firsthand the violence and harassment that women seeking abortion experience.
This unprecedented focus on improving the condition of women's lives comes on the heels of Pennsylvania's C-minus grade on women's issues given by the Center for American Progress, ranking the commonwealth 28th among the 50 states in its treatment of women. We say "given" by the center because those of us who toil in these fields know that the C-minus was generous.
It would be tempting for advocates of women's rights and equality to fall back to the defensive posture we so often find ourselves in, or to just be outraged that we need legislation to address matters as basic as permitting a pregnant woman to take a bathroom break or carry a bottle of water. But this positive vision presents an opportunity to make things better for Pennsylvania women, who encounter numerous barriers to good health and full equality. And it's something we can do right now.
The agenda for women's health offers an opportunity for real improvement in the lives of the state's most important resource: women. And we need to be mindful that this is only the first phase of an aggressive campaign needed to improve the health and well-being of women in Pennsylvania.