How Women’s Health in the U.S. Compares to Europe

How Women’s Health in the U.S. Compares to Europe

by Molly Hayward, founder of Cora

Mere months after the controversial election of Donald Trump, and with the appointment of, women are standing on fragile ground in the face of drastic changes to our reproductive landscape. With promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, and criminalize abortion, we are at a crossroads in which we need to take a critical look at how reproductive health care, education, and attitudes in the U.S. compares to those in other developed nations, specifically within Europe.

A recent New York Times column highlights the differences in countries throughout Europe, stating that “the reason to look at the European experience is not because the continent is somehow an exemplar of exactly the policies that pro-life American conservatives are pushing now, or would put in place if given constitutional license. Rather, it’s because it provides examples of many different approaches to the issue — stringently pro-life with a stronger welfare state (Ireland), expansively pro-choice with a much stronger welfare state (Sweden), more pro-life in law but relatively pro-choice in practice (Spain, until recently), relatively pro-choice in law but more culturally pro-life (Italy, arguably), and so on — that don’t necessarily map onto America’s right vs. left debate at all.

In Europe and the U.S. it’s plain to see that social attitudes inform political policy, and those attitudes can be traced back to exposure to accurate sexual and reproductive health education. As a woman, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for women’s rights, health, and embodiment, it’s my belief that one of the key ways to effect change in U.S. policies towards women’s reproductive health is to change how we approach sex and body-health education. By following the lead of many European countries, we can move to more comprehensive sex and body-health education and, in doing so, change the political and cultural climate of women’s health in the U.S.

Reform Starts with Education

In the United States, many who vehemently oppose the legalization of abortion are also support abstinence-only education as opposed  to comprehensive sex and body-health education programs and easy, affordable access to contraception — the very things that would lead to lower abortion rates. The rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and STD transmission are exceptionally higher in areas with abstinence-only sex and body-health education.

The statistics clearly demonstrate the inverse relationship between comprehensive sex and body-health education and lower number of people with STDs as well as lower teen pregnancy and abortion rates. The Netherlands, for example, has demonstrably lower levels of abortion and people living with HIV, but on average teens feel more prepared for their first sexual encounter often thanks to sex and body-health education that starts in age appropriate approaches from kindergarten.

The Reality of What Happens When Abortion is Restricted

Though comprehensive sex and body-health education can do a lot to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, there’s another piece to the puzzle that can’t be ignored — regulated, safe, and easy access to abortion.

Though abortion rates in the U.S. have been steadily declining for decades — 14.6 per 1,000 women in 2014, as compared to 29.3 in 1981, as reported by the Guttmacher Institute — there are still many who continue to vilify it, rather than consider it a private health decision belonging solely to a woman.

It seems that, at every turn, the conservative wing of government is doing what it can to chip away at women’s health and reproductive rights. At the heart of these arguments is the insinuation that women’s health is not a worthy investment, and that we are not capable of making our own decisions about our bodies and our futures–that someone else must step in and save us from ourselves.

The fact is, research shows that,  “countries where abortion is illegal or greatly restricted tend to have higher abortion rates than countries where it is legal: back-alley abortions are common in Latin America and Africa.”

That being said, even without deeming some abortions as medically necessary, I would argue that anti-abortion is among the most regressive, misogynistic political policies still being debated in the modern era. By severely limiting women’s reproductive choice, including affordable access to birth control, we are multiplying the number of unwanted children in an already overburdened and under-resourced social safety net.

Global Initiatives to Protect Women’s Health

It says something about the state of the U.S.’s attitudes towards sex and body-health education and women’s health when global organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization are taking great effort to improve the state of women’s health. The U.N. regards “comprehensive sexuality information and education as a basic human right.” The WHO is conducting global efforts to advance women’s health have been endorsed by countries through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. These efforts demonstrate that people around the world are seeing the state of women’s health and are fighting to make healthcare and education accessible and comprehensive.

It would be an oversimplification to say that Europe handles these politically and culturally loaded topics perfectly or better than the U.S. Still, despite our country’s economic and social status, we lag behind in our regard for women’s health, our access to contraception and abortion, as well as the sexual and reproductive education necessary for women and men to make informed choices about sexual activity and their health. What we can learn from many European countries is that there are different ways to address these women’s health issues, often with less fraught social tension, to give women the information, access to essential health care, and bodily sovereignty they so clearly deserve.