Women's health is not elective

We are in big trouble.  When I started reading about the healthcare reform battle, I was angry.  Now that the Senate panel has rejected the public option, and Obama has declined to stand up for reproductive rights, I am getting scared. The more I read, the more I started to realize that there is a larger problem underlying this debate.  There is something fundamentally wrong with the way people think about women's bodies and the healthcare they require.  While reproductive healthcare is absolutely critical to the general health of every woman, every family and every community, it is considered separately, almost as if it were elective, in the greater discussion of healthcare reform.

Consider the story of Rosalinda Miran-Ramirez, whose insurance company refused to cover her visit to the emergency room when she awoke to find her breast bleeding from the nipple and her shirt soaked with blood.  Their excuse?  She should have known it was not an emergency.  On appeal, the insurance company revised their argument, stating that she "had not been in any acute distress."  (Something tells me that if a man woke up to find himself bleeding profusely from his penis, no one would question whether or not he was experiencing "acute distress.")  It took a full CBS investigation to get Blue Cross to agree to cover the emergency room visit.

Nancy Folbre talks about pregnancy, maternity, caregiving and child-rearing in a piece about why healthcare reform is a woman's issue in the New York Times Economix blog. She brings up the gaff from Senator John Kyl, who argued that since he, personally, doesn't need materity coverage in his policy, it should not be required. Senator Debbie Stabenow thankfully put him in his place, but this is illustrative of an ingrained and upsetting line of reasoning that considers women's heath as if it were elective.

Kyl's gaff reminded me of Stephen Colbert's segment, "The Neutral Man's Burden," which I posted during the hearings for Justice Sotomayor.  Colbert pointed out the hypocrisy of assuming that being a white male makes one neutral.  This seems to be the basis of Senator Kyl's thinking about healthcare: that standards for coverage should be based on what a man needs because the male body is the baseline of human physiology.  Anything else one might require (maternity benefits, bleeding breast coverage, etc) is superfluous and that people who need this "extra coverage" (ie women) should pay extra for it. 

When it comes to reproductive rights, women have a lot to lose.  As this New York Times article explains, Republicans and some Democrats are refusing to pass any health care bill that allows federal money to cover abortions, or one that would allow federal subsidies for middle and low-income people to purchase insurance plans that cover abortion. And if offering plans that cover abortion means that the insurance companies will lose customers, fewer companies will be willing to offer such policies.  As a result, women who currently have this coverage could lose it.  And without insurance coverage, especially coverage for middle and low income families, abortion will once again become a privilege of wealth.

The situation is even more depressing now that President Obama, as I mentioned above, has reneged on his support of reproductive rights.  Dana Goldstein writes in "Aborting Health Reform:" "The president finally addressed the issue himself in a July 21 interview with Katie Couric, in which he bucked reproductive rights groups by saying he would consider deferring to the 'tradition' of 'not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.'" 

So nu?  What can we do?  We can send action alerts from Planned Parenthood and NARAL, but is there anything else?  Is that the only battle we need to fight?  Jewish women like Heather Booth and other second wave feminists fought for the right to abortion, but we have a different battle to fight today.  Our battle is much larger because it is about more than just abortion and the legal right to choose. 

Today we are fighting not only for the right to choose, but also for our bodies to be considered equal to men's bodies in healthcare policy -- for the right to have our entire body, including our breasts, vaginas, and the children they produce, covered by the most basic health care plan.

"Reproductive health" has become a euphemism for to the "extra" care women require -- the care every woman knows is not "extra," but fundamental. Somehow, in the mess of this reform fiasco, we must strive for a plan in which women are insured as women and not as men-with-additional-liabilities.  Women's reproductive health is NOT elective.  We must speak truth to power, and remind law and policy makers that the medical needs of all bodies, regardless of their sex, must be considered equally.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Obama has often stated that we need to minimize the need for abortion by pursuing polices that prevent unwanted pregnancies. The exclusion of coverage from most insurance policies do not move us closer to this, his stated goal. We need to call him on this!

I appreciate JWA's bringing these disturbing issues surrounding the health care debate to my attention. As femminist, Jewish women we have a special obligation to advocate for reproductive coverage for woman. Why? Catholic and fundamentalist Christen groups are vocal on the opposition. It is up to us. Do readers have suggestions for positive ways to pursue activism? Ideas that may go beyond Planned Parenthood or other groups that may already be marginalized in this debate?

Thank you to Rachel for sending me the link to this New York Times editorial, "Abortion and Health Care Reform." The language in this piece is important, I think, because it frames the right to abortion coverage in a politically strategic way - arguing that restrictions on abortion coverage deny Americans the right to make their own healthcare decisions. This language might be good to consider using as we work to prevent the loss of our rights!

I agree, women's health care should not be elective. And articles like this are important, as are the voices that join it, demanding recognition in the health care debate. Unfortunately, I suspect the price for the bill being ground out by Congress will include sacrificing the "extra demands" made by women's "bodies".However, the battle does not end there. When social security (originally 'old age insurance') was passed in 1935, it did not include farm laborers, blacks, professionals, and the self employed. It was not until 1950, when Congress amended the program, that everyone became eligible. We must not quietly wait for our legislators to act appropriately. We should shout out and make sure our message is clear. But we must not feel despair, not quit, should the resulting bill be less than perfect. It will still be an important start.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Women's health is not elective." 30 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/womens-health-is-not-elective>.

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now