On January 23, 2019, the Women’s Interfaith Forum at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston celebrated its 25th anniversary with an event exploring the progress and challenges that women have faced since its inception. Marsha Atkind, HFNJ’s Executive Director/CEO, spoke about women’s health and healthcare.
On what was also the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, Ms. Atkind cited Dr. King’s teaching that “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Though meant as specific to the struggle of African Americans in American society, Dr. King’s remarks, she said, are also relevant to the struggles of American women.
Atkind traced the evolution of healthcare for women in this country from the time that women were considered “little men” when it came to drug/protocol trials and “hysterical” when they presented with illnesses that doctors could not diagnose or cure. It has been, she said, a story of important steps forward in some areas and frustratingly slow progress or backward steps in others.
The good news:
(1) The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which affirmed a woman’s right to abortion, gave her control over her body and, by extension, her career and her life
(2) The 1985 Report of the Public Health Service Task Force on Women’s Health Issues, which led to the NIH inclusion of more women in clinical research and the 1998 ruling of the FDA requiring manufacturers to provide effectiveness data by sex.
(3) Practicing female physicians in the US increased from 2% in 1915 to increases to 17% in 1990 (after the passage of Title IX), and 36% by 2015.
(4) Recognition of the different ways in which heart attacks occur in women as opposed to men has saved many lives.
(5) Breast cancer survival rates have improved and a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer has been developed and marketed to the public.
(6) Cancer deaths in general have decreased – down 27% from their peak in 1991.
(7) Teen pregnancies have decreased significantly, and the transmission of HIV from mother to fetus/infant is down to almost zero.
(8) There is a growing understanding of LGBTQ concerns. Rutgers School of Public Health announced earlier this month that it will now offer an MPH degree in LGBTQ Health.
The bad news:
- NJ is near the bottom of US states – 47th out of 50th – in maternal/child health outcomes.
(2) African American women at every income and education level are three times more
likely to die in childbirth or their babies within the first year of life as Caucasian women, and present with more aggressive cancers at earlier ages than Caucasian women.
(3) Women are often still not taken seriously when they talk to healthcare providers about their symptoms. A case in point is tennis star Serena Williams, who almost died from blood clots in her lungs after an emergency c-section when those caring for her disregarded her complaints about her inability to breathe until it was almost too late.
(3) Serious attempts are underway to roll back or eliminate completely reproductive rights for women through withdrawal of funding for providers, restrictive laws, and court challenges.
(4) The growing Fetal Personhood movement seeks to declare a fetus a person with full rights from the moment of conception and criminalize behaviors by pregnant women that are deemed harmful to the fetus – behaviors like hiking or skiing or driving in ways that lead to accidents, foods that are eaten, meds that are taken, etc. Is in vitro fertilization – where unused embryos are sometimes discarded – then to be considered murder, effectively eliminating it as an option for women who cannot otherwise conceive?
(5) Despite the Federal Violence Against Women Act which defines domestic violence as a crime, the proliferation of women’s shelters and crisis centers, and educational programs for teens and adults, one in four American women is still a victim of intimate partner violence in her lifetime, and more than 80% of these women report significant short or long term health impacts as a result.
Looking to the future, Atkind spoke about advances in technology and artificial intelligence that are making it easier to connect poor, disabled, and elderly people with physicians and family caregivers. AI can watch over the elderly, isolated, and disabled, remind them to take their meds, play their favorite music, and contact family or dial 911 when there is a problem. With women most often the caregivers, and themselves living into their 90’s, these are tools with seemingly limitless possibility for improving women’s lives.