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Throughout the year, countless pieces of legislature wind their way through the state or federal system—most of them with little fanfare. But occasionally, a proposed law comes along that captures public attention, touching on an issue we can almost unanimously agree matters. The “Yes Means Yes” bill, recently passed in California, was one of those rare instances —a new law that stands to change the way we view sexual assault in this country (see below for more detail).
But this landmark decision isn’t the only current legislation that could impact the way we handle important sexual-health issues in the United States. Right now, everything from emergency contraception to blood donation among gay men is on the legislative table. Here, what you need to know:
The Emergency Contraception Access and Education Act of 2014
After having unprotected sex, a woman has 120 hours to make a decision: Will she take Plan B — and potentially avoid an unplanned pregnancy — or take her chances? For a rape victim, that decision is especially salient, but that doesn’t mean access to emergency contraceptives is guaranteed: In 2012, for example, an Oklahoma emergency room doctor controversially refused to give emergency contraceptives to a 24-year-old rape victim. In fact, only 13 states and the District of Columbia currently require hospital E.R.s to provide emergency contraception, if requested, to sexual-assault survivors, according to the sponsors of the act.
The Emergency Contraception Access and Education Act of 2014, introduced in September, would make this requirement uniform: All hospitals receiving federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid would have to provide information about emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault, and then offer them the drug (regardless of their ability to pay for it).
“Emergency contraception is a safe, responsible and effective means of preventing unintended pregnancies — a goal we all should share,” Senator Patty Murray, one of the legislators who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, in spite of its increased availability, emergency contraception remains an underused prevention method on the United States, especially for survivors of sexual assault.”
“Yes Means Yes”
In the eyes of California legislators, the old “no means no” adage is no longer enough to protect women against unwanted sexual encounters. On Sept. 28th, the state’s Senate unanimously passed what’s being called the “Yes Means Yes” law, which requires state-funded universities to add an “affirmative consent” clause to their policies about sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, and stalking.
Translation: Both parties must give clear consent before sexual activity begins — and a lack of resistance or silence doesn’t count as saying “yes,” even if the couple is dating or has previously been sexual.
The law adds that consent may be revoked at any time during the encounter, and clarifies that, in some cases, people are incapable of agreeing to sexual activity. According to the law, someone who is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated because of drugs, alcohol, or medications; or unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition cannot provide consent.
AJR-50 Blood Donation Bill
During the AIDs scare of the 1980s, men who’ve had sex with men — even just once since 1977—were disqualified from an easy act of public service: donating blood. “AJR 50,” a bill that’s been passed by the California Senate, asks President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services to revoke this policy, allowing men who’ve had sex with men to give blood. The U.K. and Canada have already instituted similar changes.
The current U.S. policy was “first established in 1983 when the FDA had no way of testing blood or plasma for HIV,” the bill states. “The FDA essentially classified all sexually active gay and bisexual men in the highest-risk blood donor category, the same category as IV drug users and people who have spent more than five years since 1980 in a country that has mad cow disease.” In other words, even if a gay man has a clean bill of health, he’s deemed a bigger threat to the blood supply than a straight man who’s been treated for a laundry list of STDs in the last year.
It’s not just California legislators that are pushing for change. The American Red Cross, along with America’s Blood Centers, believe the lifetime ban should be modified, perhaps to a one-year deferral for men who’ve recently had sex with men. The benefit of lifting the ban altogether? A potential 615,300 pints of additional blood per year, according to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute.
Access to Contraception for Women Service Members and Dependents Act of 2014
Less than 7 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) patients are female — which may explain why a third of VA medical centers still don’t have a gynecologist on staff, according to a new Disabled American Veterans study. And that’s not the only area of lacking care: Although TRICARE — the insurance program for active-duty soldiers — covers no-copay contraception, female service members who aren’t active duty don’t receive the same benefit.
The Access to Contraception act, which was assigned to a congressional committee this summer, aims to provide all female service members (and their dependents) with access to contraception.
"Female service members deserve access to the same basic health care as the women they protect and it’s unacceptable that they don’t," Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who introduced the act, said in a statement. ”Giving women in the military access to basic preventative health care, including contraception and family planning counseling, will strengthen our military as a whole.”
The law would also enhance existing regulations that require military doctors to offer emergency contraception to sexual-assault victims — an important provision, considering a fifth of the female soldiers in the DAV report said they’d experienced military sexual trauma (an issue that warrants special attention on its own).