Sometimes in politics it is the singer that matters, not the song. When Social Development Minister Paula Bennett this week announced free long-acting contraception for beneficiaries, it somehow sounded offensive. It seemed to say to women on benefits, "We don't want you breeding". That is probably why poverty activist Sue Bradford claimed it bordered on state control of women's reproductive choices and the Labour Party was at pains to find something wrong with it.
Yet free contraception is a benefit that in different circumstances Labour would be proud to promote. Indeed, four years ago, when Labour was governing, the Auckland District Health Board made the morning-after pill free from its pharmacies to reduce teenage pregnancy and abortions. The Waikato board had set up a similar programme the previous year. Women's health advocates were enthusiastic about those schemes. They were not so happy yesterday.
"Women's contraceptive choices do not belong in welfare policy," said Christy Parker, a senior policy analyst for the Women's Health Action Trust. "The Government's preference for women on benefits to make particular contraceptive choices represents a violation on their human rights," she said.
National's proposal is not as novel as it sounds. Pharmac already funds some contraceptive devices and it would be surprising if beneficiaries' case managers were not already in the habit of steering young solo mothers in that direction if they seemed at risk of another pregnancy. The only claim Ms Bennett can make for her new programme is that it would pay the doctor's fee and the cost of any devices that may be outside Pharmac's schedule.
There is more politics than substance in her song. The National Party has a tendency to exaggerate the problem of beneficiaries having babies, particularly in their teens. Mothers under 19 give birth to about 7 per cent of babies born in New Zealand each year. The rate has been fairly stable regardless of contraceptive campaigns.
The true scale of the problem can be seen in the amount the Government has budgeted for its latest programme: a mere $1 million in a package of $287 million to give unemployed teenagers further education and training. The number of 16- to 18-year-old parents on a benefit is just 1165. The number of 16- to 17-year-olds on all benefits is not much greater: 1400. The women among them will be the first targets of the free contraceptive programme when it starts in July. From October it will be available to all women on benefits and their teenage daughters.
The numbers may not be large but any effort to stop inter-generational dependence is probably best aimed at young women who have grown up in welfare. Ideally they will be able to avoid pregnancy and find work. If they already have a child, the Government has done its utmost to discourage them from having more. They have known since February that if they have another baby while on the benefit they will be expected to take any work offered to them when the child is just a year old.
Free contraception will be voluntary and it is hard to see that it could violate human rights. So long as the devices are reliable and do not have medical risks, they offer better value for public funds than the already available pill that depends on daily use, or one that has to be taken quickly.
There is nothing more celebrated than a baby in most circumstances, but few things more damaging to a teenage girl's prospects of furthering her education and getting meaningful work. The Government's offerings for her training, childcare and the child's early education should help, but delaying motherhood could ensure her a better life.