Psst, big news for women and their insurance

Apparently, the federal debt ceiling crisis has eclipsed big news for America’s women.

Let’s remedy that, please.

Last Monday, the Obama administration announced that insurance companies will have to provide birth control services to women with no copayment.

The new rules also eliminate the copay for other preventive health measures — such as prenatal care, counseling and equipment for breast-feeding — and screenings to detect HIV, gestational diabetes in pregnant women and signs of domestic violence.

This long-overdue improvement in the lives of women’s reproductive health is brought to you by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare by those hoping you won’t notice that health care reform was a good thing.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed the new rules in response to recommendations by the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine. The requirements kick in for insurance plans that start on or after Aug. 1, 2012.

There is an exemption for religious employers, but it is narrow. Churches and parochial schools may refuse the coverage to their female employees, but not hospitals and universities.

There are predictable opponents to this coverage for women. One of them is the insurance industry, which claims the new requirements will force everyone’s health care costs to increase.

This is speculative, of course, and it doesn’t address the heart of the problem.

“I always get frustrated with discussions of cost, as if there is no cost to doing nothing,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview Tuesday.

“What happens if we continue with the number of unintended pregnancies? What happens to adolescent health for kids who get pregnant too soon and [then live] in poverty? What happens when women don’t get domestic violence counseling and stay with their children in abusive situations? Those things add up.”

Indeed, they do. Take pregnancy, for example.

On average, women pay up to $50 a month for birth control pills, which is the most popular form of contraception. That’s $600 a year.

Compare that total with HHS’ estimated cost of an uncomplicated pregnancy and childbirth: $7,600.

Even a math-challenged journalist like me can calculate the bare-minimum savings of avoiding an unplanned pregnancy: about $7,000 in that year.

Of course, that’s just the starting point when it comes to the costs of raising a child, as any parent knows.

Add to this equation these two other well-documented statistics:

Nearly half — 49 percent — of pregnancies are unplanned. Of those women who become pregnant, 95 percent report using contraception only occasionally or not at all. Many cite prohibitive costs as the reason.

“But wait,” opponents say. “They have plenty of places to go for free birth control.”

Places such as Planned Parenthood, which Republicans in the House of Representatives recently tried to defund.

Which brings me to Sebelius’ other salient point during our interview.

“It wasn’t that long ago when there was the huge debate in the House and Senate floors — in the mid-’70s and early ’80s — about including women in health studies,” she said. “They were using men to study breast cancer. We’re still making up for lost time.”

Indeed. Finally, there is the radical right, which opposes birth control coverage for all women because it violates the religious practices of the few.

Emphasis on practices, not beliefs. Even among Catholic women, there is a wide gap between church teachings against birth control and what goes on in the privacy of their own lives.

As the Guttmacher Institute reports, 99 percent of sexually active women in the United States have used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning.

Sixty-nine percent of them report using a “highly effective” method, such as the pill, sterilization or an intrauterine device. This includes 68 percent of Catholic women, 73 percent of mainline Protestants and 74 percent of evangelicals.

These figures illustrate an enduring truth about women: We always have been able to think for ourselves.

Finally, we no longer will have to pay a penalty for our wise and responsible ways.

Connie Schultz is an opinion columnist for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.