For too long, conservative thinking on women’s health has selectively overlooked the influence women have on both economic opportunity and social stability. Conservatism is rooted in ideals of individual rights, liberty and the protection of human dignity. But partisanship has caused too many conservatives to look past the moral and even economic reasons to care for the health of women. You would think the ability of half the population to thrive economically would resonate. Yet issues from family planning to access to care are caught up in our contemporary polarization.
Nearly 150 years ago, Republicans were the first major political party to acknowledge and support the rights and representation of women within the party platform. The road to women’s suffrage proved a long and arduous journey. But from the election of Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House to introduction and ratification of the 19th Amendment, Republicans were influential in women becoming more actively involved in American society.
We have more work to do in the pursuit of full equality, but women have continued to push forward in every facet of American life. Today, women outnumber men on college campuses, with women comprising the majority of medical and law school enrollees. Single women are purchasing homes at twice the rate of single men. And women are more likely to start businesses than their male peers, according to a study by SCORE, equating to an estimated 1,821 new U.S. businesses per day.
That is all to the good, but too many women in the United States are being left behind. That is creating devastating consequences for their individual welfare and our collective strength and international competiveness.
Compared to women of other high-income countries like Canada, Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom, U.S. women cope with higher instances of chronic disease and are more prone to skipping important medical care because of cost and inability to afford adequate treatment, according to research from the Commonwealth Fund. Yes, infant mortality is at a historic low. But American women are more likely to die in childbirth, with maternal mortality rates doubling since the mid-1980s.
Those realities equate to the deaths of two to three women daily from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Tragically, that ranks as the highest rate among developed countries in the world. And as NPR and ProPublica reporting notes, “for every American woman who dies from childbirth, 70 more come close.”
Geographic isolation, “medicine as business” models, gender and racial bias, and socioeconomic inequalities further compound these issues. Geographic isolation alone is a major limitation. Half of all counties in the United States are without a single obstetrician and 50 percent of rural counties are without a hospital where women can give birth.
The Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals reports that only 69 of 163 rural hospitals in the state still deliver babies. This naturally creates serious health risks for women in these areas. It also becomes one more way in which low-income communities become separated from the larger American culture, exacerbating the socio-economic divide that is creating such tension across our nation.
The impact of geographic isolation on women’s health care also came through in a groundbreaking assessment on access in the U.S. to feminine hygiene products in low-income areas. Researchers at the Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice found that nearly half of all participants surveyed could “not afford to buy both food and period-related products during the past year.” Nearly two-thirds of respondents were unable to afford products like tampons and sanitary pads at some point during the previous year. And of the participants in full- or part-time employment, 36 percent reported missing at least one day of work a month due to lack of access to much-needed products.
Economic disparities present their own challenges. Deaths from cervical cancer, which is a preventable and treatable disease with adequate care, are twice as likely in low-income counties than in more affluent areas, according to the American Cancer Society, and twice as likely among African American women than white women.
For too many women, their personal demographics determine how long and how healthy they live. The United Health Foundation pointed out in a study that the mortality rates for women and children vary greatly depending upon the state in which they live. Women who have the means can travel elsewhere for care. For those that don’t, options are limited.