Rights to Reproductive Health Services

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on June 03, 2022

What Are Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights?

In a nutshell, these are your basic human rights to control your sexual and reproductive health. Laws where you live may protect these rights. Health and human rights advocates have outlined three categories of reproductive rights. They include your rights to:

  • Decide when or if you have children and with whom
  • Have access to information and services related to sexual and reproductive health
  • Make reproductive and sexual health decisions free from discrimination and inequality

Around the world, many people, especially girls and women and those living in poverty, have limited reproductive and sexual health rights. They may not have access to sex education, birth control, pregnancy care, or counseling. This often stems from a community’s beliefs and values surrounding sex, particularly women’s sexuality. Some societies may place more pressure on women to have children.

Restricted reproductive rights have long-term effects -- physically, socially, and economically. Without proper health care, women and girls are more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth. Maternal death is the leading cause of death for girls and women ages 15 to 19 around the world, often because their bodies aren’t mature enough to carry a baby.

If you don’t have the right to decide when you have sex and get pregnant, you may have fewer educational and job opportunities. For many girls, reaching puberty means their communities consider them to be adults. They may get married, become pregnant, and drop out of school to care for their children. This cycle limits a girl’s economic and career potential, leaving her vulnerable to poverty.

What Are Your Rights to Reproductive and Sexual Health Services?

In the United States, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), signed into law in 2010, makes health insurance and health services more affordable for more people. The ACA also expanded Medicaid to cover certain people with low incomes, although some states haven’t gone along with that. While some services apply to all health coverage, others are only available through the insurance plan where you work or the Health Insurance Marketplace managed by your state or the federal government.

Birth control

You cannot be charged for birth control, or related health care visits, by any Marketplace health insurance plan when you see an in-network provider. The ACA covers all birth control approved by the FDA including:

  • Barrier birth control
  • Hormonal control
  • Implant
  • Emergency birth control
  • Tubal ligation (sterilization or “having your tubes tied”)

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

If you’re pregnant or recently had a child, you’re entitled to health coverage. The Marketplace and Medicaid meet your health care needs during pregnancy and childbirth, and all qualified health plans must cover care for those who’ve given birth and newborns.

If you breastfeed your baby, there is free help available. Most health insurance plans are required to cover breastfeeding support, counseling, and the cost of a new or rented breast pump. You may need approval from your doctor.

Other sexual health services

The ACA also covers the following sexual health services:

  • HIV screening for teens and adults ages 15 to 65
  • PrEP medication for high-risk HIV-negative adults
  • HPV vaccine
  • STI counseling for high-risk adults
  • Syphilis screening for high-risk adults

Under the ACA, you can choose any available in-network primary care provider. You don’t need a referral from your primary care doctor to see an OB/GYN.

Barriers to Reproductive Health Services

Unfortunately, there are reports of insurers denying women birth control coverage under the ACA. Some expect women to prove other birth control methods have failed before paying for their preferred method. Or, they may not cover birth control methods that have the same ingredients but different delivery methods, such as the birth control patch and the pill. One study reviewed 20 insurers across five states and found that only 12 covered costs for the contraceptive ring and only 10 covered all FDA-approved IUDs.

Sometimes, there are pharmacists who won’t fill birth control prescriptions, or offer emergency birth control, because of their religious or other beliefs. In some states, this is their right. If this happens to you, you’ll need to find another pharmacy to get your birth control.

You may also find barriers to birth control at your doctor’s office. Despite what they may say, it’s not necessary to have a pelvic exam or cervical screening before receiving a birth control prescription.

But you may be required to see your doctor two times for a birth control implant such as an IUD -- one time for a consultation and the other time to place the device. This all can happen in one visit.

Keep in mind that it’s not mandatory for health insurance plans to cover drugs that trigger an abortion, or to cover vasectomies for men. Also, some employers, such as religious organizations, aren’t required to cover birth control in their health plans. Talk to your employer about which services their plan covers.

What Rights Do Minors Have to Reproductive and Sexual Health Services?

It’s important to note that young people may have different reproductive and sexual health rights than adults. It all depends on where you live and the laws of your state.

In many states, people under 18 are legally allowed to access birth control, pregnancy care, and STI services without the consent of their parents. Other states only allow specific groups of minors to use these services without parental permission, such as those who are married, pregnant, or already have children. A few states don’t have clear-cut laws about parental consent. In these cases, doctors can choose whether or not to offer young people birth control and other sexual health care.

You can find out the laws in your state and any new or pending legislation on the Guttmacher Institute website.

Show Sources

SOURCES: “Minors Access to Contraceptive Health Care.”

Guttmacher Institute: “An Overview of Consent to Reproductive Health Services by Young People.”

United Nations: “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: The Cornerstone of Sustainable Development,” “Sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions: “Amid Reports that Insurers Are Flouting ACA Contraception Coverage Protections, Senators Murray, Wyden Urge Biden Administration to Protect Access to Birth Control.” “About the Affordable Care Act.” “Rights & protections,” “Birth control benefits,” “Preventive care benefits for adults,” “Breastfeeding benefits,” “Health coverage if you're pregnant, plan to get pregnant, or recently gave birth,” “Medicaid expansion & what it means for you,” “Doctor choice & emergency room access.”

Obstetrics and Gynecology clinics of North America: “Contraceptive Coverage and the Affordable Care Act.”

International Encyclopedia of Public Health: “Reproductive Rights.”

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists: “Access to Contraception.”

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