Keep Your Hands off: Why Women Need Access to Reproductive Healthcare

Maia Baker  ‘19, Opinion Columnist

Women with access to reproductive healthcare make stronger, better-informed decisions about their own reproductive health, creating healthier, more successful trajectories both for their own lives and the lives of their communities.

Reproductive health services cover a broad and vital spectrum of health, including cancer screenings, contraception, prenatal care, STD treatment, and other programs. These services enable women to receive life-saving early treatments for dangerous cancers, prevent unwanted and unsupportable pregnancies, and ensure the health of their reproductive systems and their babies. Far from simple medical services, these programs fill vital needs for women who must care for their own bodies in order to not only endure but lead their own lives.

Women play vital roles in the fabric of their communities as workers, voters, family members, and participants in the life of their region. Their abilities to occupy these roles connects directly to their abilities to make personal decisions about their reproductive potential and sexual health. In turn, this empowerment to make decisions contributes to their increased educational attainment, higher participation and larger earnings in the workforce, and ability to succeed in their chosen lives. Reproductive healthcare covers a range of services ranging from birth control to STD medication to cancer detection and treatment – all vital services which can, most dramatically, prevent death, yet on a less theatrical scale make it possible for them to finish high school, go to college, and choose the direction of their own lives. Women with access to reproductive health services such as contraception attain more and earn more. On a fundamental level, access to contraception correlates with access to other health services, like cancer screenings, meaning that reproductive health services save women’s lives.

In the years immediately after the contraceptive pill became accessible to women in America, the likelihood of a woman who could obtain the pill enrolling in college rose by 12%. Experts estimate that this initial access to the pill accounts for 30% of the total increase in the proportion of women occupying skilled jobs between 1970 and 1990, accounting for thousands of women entering professional fields. Similarly, women under 21 who had access to the pill dropped out of college 35% less often than women who could not get the pill or who had been unable to get it before its legalization. In more recent years, studies have shown that women who have children after age 20 typically spend three more years in school than women who become mothers before 20 and thus benefit from the compounding increases in lifetime earnings caused by each year of education. These statistics speak to the power of contraception for women’s educational attainment and its correlation with their later careers and salaries: access to contraception enables more education and thus more successful careers and higher earnings. Reproductive healthcare isn’t only about sex and babies; it’s also about lives, careers, and dreams.

While decisions about reproductive and sexual health, and their consequences, directly affect women’s economic and financial achievements, access or lack of access to reproductive self-determination affects women’s mental and social wellbeing as well. A direct effect of lack of access to contraception can be deadly. Oral contraceptives reduce endometrial cancer, the most common form of gynecological cancer, by 50%; combined oral contraceptives reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by 20% every five years of use. What these numbers really mean is that women who can use oral contraceptives drastically decrease their chances of having cancer. Furthermore, early pregnancies and short intervals between births result in significantly more negative “birth outcomes,” or the health of the infant and mother: the ability to use contraception and other family planning techniques substantially decreases low birth weights, premature births, and infant mortality, meaning healthier babies and healthier mothers.

With access to family planning, women can escape poverty or mitigate its severity: researchers estimate that the children of women who have access to contraception gain an increase of 20-30% in family income as adults. Women who have access to contraception have increased education and increased wealth; women who take oral contraceptives substantially decrease the probability of developing certain cancers; and women who take advantage of reproductive health services receive STD treatments and cancer screenings which fundamentally improve their lives.

More women with access to reproductive health services means more educated women; more women with livable salaries; and ultimately more families with economic security. This increase of women with autonomy over their reproductive capacity will mean an increase, in every community, of women with the capacity to direct, manage, and improve their environments. 

Women who detect cancers early, receive treatment for STDs which can cause infertility or lifelong handicap, and use contraceptive techniques to effectively plan the course of their own childbearing create communities where they and their families thrive. Furthermore, these services allow women to make their own decisions not out of fear but out of love. Women with full control of their reproductive and sexual autonomy make choices based in self-empowerment, enabling their fulfillment in the lives that they choose for themselves.

In other words, unless you are willing to admit that you don’t think women should have long, full, successful lives, please keep your hands off our reproductive healthcare.