It’s 2015—let’s stop calling reproductive rights a “women’s issue”

Reproductive health will always be vital to women’s economic empowerment.
Reproductive health will always be vital to women’s economic empowerment.
Image: AP Photo/Findlay Kember
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The year 1992 was hailed as the “Year of the Woman”—a moniker popularized in the wake of the election of a handful of powerful female senators. Alternatively, 1992 was also the year of a presidential election defined by “the economy, stupid”—the phrase coined by Democratic strategist James Carville to describe the role voters’ anxieties around economic security played in president Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the White House.

These two catchphrases are now old-hat throwbacks. But they crystallize how, for much of the time since, even before the advent of second-wave feminism, political leaders and pundits alike have treated economic issues and “women’s issues,” like abortion and other reproductive care, as separate spheres. Siloed from broad-based political discourse about the health of the economy, “women’s issues” were a different animal, simultaneously empowering and marginalizing women as a special interest group, rather than—as many have argued—legitimizing them as human issues impacting a majority of our society.

To an extent, we have come a long way since then. We’ve seen a mainstreaming of intersectional feminism that insists on a more pluralistic perspective and active inclusion of all people—moving toward a wider understanding of a point legendary writer and activist Audre Lorde made: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”

Between this trend and the rising profile of conservative women in public office, few if any serious observers of our political process act as if women can be treated as a monolithic constituency. Leading political voices from both sides of the aisle talk publicly about the importance of what in the early 1990s would have been dismissed as “women’s issues.” To name just two among many examples: Paul Ryan negotiated time with his family as part of his deal with Republican leadership, and while Ryan opposes it, Kirsten Gillibrand and Rosa DeLauro’s FAMILY Act is a bill that in name and in content recognizes the broader ramifications of care for all Americans, not just women.

We may have evolved past thinking of women as a monolith, but we still haven’t connected the dots that “women’s issues” are “everyone issues”—especially when it comes to linking reproductive rights and economic security. We still demarcate between them, ignoring the data and research that show how the lack of support for reproductive health (or understanding of it as linked to economic security, in other words, having an effect on everyone, and not just women) leaves women at an economic disadvantage.

Studies going back more than 10 years link the advent of the morning-after pill to an increase in the number of women employed in non-traditional female professions and the availability of birth control to an increase in women’s wages. At the same time, the National Women’s Law Center estimates that women earn on average around $11,000 less than men do, and those without insurance coverage for birth control (for anything ranging from family planning to treatment of conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis) must fork over up to $1,000 a year for it. For a female worker making minimum wage, this is days’—or weeks’—worth of cash that a male counterpart can put toward rent, education, or child care. And when you consider that women spend an average of 30 years trying to prevent pregnancy and only five pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant, those numbers add up fast.

In the starkest of economic terms, the day-to-day business of staying healthy as a female adult with a functioning reproductive system can be cost-prohibitive—and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have one that works the way you want it to. Screenings for breast, cervical, ovarian, and other cancers are central to good gynecological care. Not to mention that treatment for infertility, such as IVF, can run between $15,000 and $25,000—making the gulf between reproductive health and economic security even wider and asking many women to choose between the family they want and the economic security they need.

So where does this leave us on the problem of treating the economy and reproductive health as separate spheres? As it happens, 1992 was also the year that the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which (among other things) ruled that states can only restrict abortion as long as those restrictions do not impose an “undue burden” on the mother. Laws seeking to create a “substantial obstacle” to seeking an abortion were deemed unconstitutional. Last week, however, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear a challenge to a Texas law (made famous by state senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster) that abortion supporters contend would close seventy-five percent of the clinics in Texas. Described by The Economist as the “most consequential abortion case to arrive on their docket since 1992,” Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole will likely be heard in early spring with a decision expected by late June, according to SCOTUSblog.

This case may very well shake up a 2016 presidential election that by then will be in full swing. And while watchers are rightly activated and anxious about what impact it will have on the parameters Casey set in place, we should also revisit this passage from the decision: “The ability of women to participate in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives (emphasis added).” Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes will unfold in the midst of a presidential race where a former first lady and secretary of state is the likely Democratic nominee.

What’s different since 1992 is the increasing visibility of the movement for reproductive justice, which includes abortion and access to health care in an effort to address structural inequalities of race, gender, and class that impede the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights. Crucially, reproductive justice insists that reproductive health and economic security are not separate spheres. In other words, if in 1992 the focus was on the “ability to control,” since then advocates for reproductive justice have increasingly asserted the centrality of what Casey describes as the ability “to participate in the economic and social life of the Nation.” They argue convincingly for recognizing the link between access to reproductive healthcare and parenting resources and economic stability, security, and opportunity for women and families.

Recent research, including a longitudinal study conducted at the University of San Francisco, also reveals the critical interplay between women’s economic security and their access to reproductive health care. Known as the “Turnaway Study,” it tracked data on what happens to women who seek abortions but are turned away—precisely the women at issue in Casey and Whole Woman’s Health.

The study’s findings clearly showed a connection between being turned away and a decrease in economic security; women denied abortions were 3 times more likely to be living below the federal poverty line two years later. According to a report from the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, any efforts to combat poverty—“affordable housing, health insurance, education, supplemental nutrition, living wage, paid sick and family leave, child care and reliable public transportation”—are “incomplete without affordable, comprehensive reproductive health care,” including contraception and abortion care.

The same report concludes, “These findings should come as no surprise… Because a woman’s reproductive years directly overlap with her time in school and the workforce, she must be able to prevent unintended pregnancy in order to complete her education, maintain employment, and achieve economic security.” The authors of The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink concur; among 42 million women in the U.S., more than half are “living a single incident away…from economic ruin.” They conclude: “The Turnaway Study demonstrates that a birth resulting from an unintended pregnancy is” such an incident that can “upend the financial security of a woman and her family.”

This isn’t new. We’ve known for a long time that reproductive health care has been and always will be a vital component of women’s economic empowerment, and by a transitive property of equality (not to mention economics), that empowerment sustains greater economic security and stability nationwide.

As Latifa Lyles, Director of the Women’s Bureau at the US Department of Labor has written, “women’s sustained participation in the labor force is critical to the economic security and stability of millions of individual families.” In addition, increasing women’s labor force participation (which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics puts at 59.8%, compared to men at 69.5%) will enrich our economy. According to a White House estimate, if enough women joined the labor force to bridge that gap, US GDP could be increased by as much as 9%.

This newer point—that women’s economic empowerment and labor force participation, bolstered by reproductive justice, is key to the economic health of the country—needs to be repeated until it, too, becomes old-hat conventional wisdom.