Reproductive Rights are Foundational to Women’s Whole Health

Kat MarriottMay 25, 2022

May marks National Mental Health Awareness Month as well as  National Women’s Health Week.  

According to a study utilizing World Health Organization World Mental Health Survey data, young women have emerged as the highest-risk group for mental ill health. Digging deeper into this study reveals these disturbing statistics regarding mental health among young women and girls: 

  • A quarter of young women (25.7%) have self-harmed – more than twice the rate for young men. There is evidence this could be higher and is growing. 
  • 26% of young women experience common mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression (almost three times the rate of young men). 
  • 1 in 7 young women (16-24) experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (compared with 3.6% of young men) due to the specific types of trauma (e.g. sexual violence) women are subject to that have a higher overall conditional rate of PTSD.
  • There has been a 50% increase in teen girls admitted to U.S. hopsitals for suspected suicide from 2019 to 2021. 

These results might be surprising to readers but sadly are not uncommon in the research literature, nor are findings demonstrating the interconnectedness of women’s mental health and their health more broadly.  

The reasons why women and girls struggle disproportionately are complex and varied. However, given the recent threat to women’s reproductive rights indicated by the leak of the supreme court draft decision regarding abortion rights, it behooves us to shine light on how limiting women’s reproductive rights serves to exacerbate an already pressing issue posing severe health consequences to women and their families world-wide. 

Criminalizing the reproductive rights of women will have a profound and devastating effect on the mental health of many, not just those seeking abortions, and proves dangerous to the wellbeing of women overall. Women by and large suffer the consequences of unintended pregnancy and often bear the brunt of responsibility to manage pregnancy, birth and child rearing at a time and place in their lives where they are ill prepared to do so.  

The negative mental, physical and socioeconomic health effects of restricting women’s reproductive rights is evident in the personal stories of our friends and family members as well as in the research literature.  The recent  “Turnaway Study,” a 5-year longitudinal study comparing women who attempted successfully and unsuccessfully to access abortion services, demonstrates the many ways in which being denied reproductive rights has major negative implications for women and disproportionately poor women:  

  • Women denied abortions experienced more anxiety than women who received one in the months after seeking an abortion. 
  • One week after seeking abortion, stress levels were highest among women who were turned away and went on to parent. 
  • Six months after being denied an abortion, women had more than three times greater odds of being unemployed than women who were able to access an abortion. 
  • Women who were denied a wanted abortion were more likely to be enrolled in public safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food assistance (SNAP), and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) compared to women who received abortions. 
  • Women who were denied an abortion and gave birth reported more life-threatening complications like eclampsia and postpartum hemorrhage compared to those who received wanted abortions. 
  • Women who were denied an abortion and gave birth instead reported more chronic headaches or migraines, joint pain, and gestational hypertension compared to those who had an abortion.  
  • The higher risks of childbirth were tragically demonstrated by two women who were denied an abortion and died following delivery. No women died from an abortion. 

Results of this study demonstrate that many women do not need to imagine the trauma of bearing and raising a child knowing she lacks the resources- emotionally and physically- to care for a child, often struggling to provide adequate self-care even for herself.  Children born into such circumstances are likely to experience a host of poor health outcomes themselves both as a result of poverty as well as lack of engaged parenting.  And so the cycle of poverty and trauma continues to threaten the health of women and girls, particularly those in marginalized communities. 

It is impossible to fully advocate for the mental health of women without recognizing the essential nature of reproductive rights.  Women deserve to feel safe and supported in all of their decisions about childbearing and parenthood, including and beyond the decision whether or not to become a parent in the first place. 

Author: Kat Marriott

Senior Research Scientist for HITLAB’s Research Practice and Executive Director at Healthcare Professionals for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP).

A Scientist by training, Kat has worked for over 20 years as a researcher and scientific project manager. She holds a PhD in Experimental Pathology with an emphasis on virology and infectious diseases. Kat has been published in several journals and presented at numerous national and international meetings on topics such as infectious disease and public health. She has a lot of experience leading research and clinical trials.

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