Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The body politic

Abortion. The HPV vaccine. Maternal mortality. Three very different issues, but all serving as poignant examples of the inherent dangers of allowing politics to supersede women’s health.

These three topics were the central issues discussed in today’s special session, “Women’s Health: In the Political Crossfire,” which shined a spotlight on the detrimental health effects of allowing politics and ideology to dictate evidence-based public health practices.

Abortion — perhaps the most obvious women’s health issue that finds itself overshadowed by politics — was discussed within the slippery-slope framework of increasing regulation. As noted by panelist Louise Melling, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, the 2007 Supreme Court ruling on partial-birth abortion — which upheld a federal ban on the procedure — demonstrated the degree to which the nation’s highest court has reversed course since 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade. Melling provided telling examples to support the idea that increased limitations on a women’s right to choose fly in the face of efforts to protect and improve women’s health.

In his discussion of recent attempts to mandate HPV vaccinations, panelist Lawrence Gostin, JD, LLD, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, also argued that politics present real dangers to women’s health. Gostin, who feels that mandating the vaccine should be a last resort, argued that issues of social justice arise when a vaccine is mandated for one group and not another. This is significant, he said, because although men and women are equally affected by HPV, states that do mandate vaccination only require women to get immunized. And though the vaccine has been approved by federal safety agencies, the HPV vaccine has not been subjected to large-scale, long-term clinical trials.

The final panelist, Deni Robey, JD, added a global perspective to the discussion. Robey works for Americans for UNFPA, an organization that works to build American support for the United Nations Population Fund, which provides critical reproductive health services to women worldwide. She discussed how U.S. politics not only affect women domestically, but globally. Looking specifically at the disturbingly high rates of maternal mortality around the world, Robey illustrated the connection between the current U.S. administration’s refusal to fund certain international contraceptive programs and the continued numbers of women dying — needlessly — during childbirth. The U.S. government — the only government that won’t contribute to UNFPA because of ideological differences — has withheld close to $200 million in funding since 2002. That’s $200 million less that can be used to help the upwards of 16 per 100 women who die while giving birth in nations with the worst maternal mortality rates.

In the end, women’s health and politics will probably continue to mingle in the same circles for quite some time, but the question remains: What will we do to change the situation?

— B.L.

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