New abortion laws contribute to sexist environments that harm everyone's health

New abortion laws contribute to sexist environments that harm everyone's health
Cardiovascular disease was one of the diseases shown to be more prevalent in states that have more structural sexism, according to a recent study. Credit: pixelheadphoto-digitalskillet/

Nine states have passed laws in 2019 alone that restrict abortion at the earliest stages of pregnancy. Those of us who study public health are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential for negative health consequences of these kinds of policies on women.

That's because research has shown that laws limiting and services put 's and well-being at risk in many ways. This can be from increasing the likelihood of unsafe procedures to causing long-term mental and physical health damage by forcing the continuation of unwanted pregnancies.

Public health scholars and international human rights organizations consider reproductive choice and access to a full range of reproductive health care services to be a fundamental human right. They also consider it a necessity for women's equal citizenship and full participation in social, political and economic life. That's why many people, including myself, view restrictions on abortion as sexist.

But what if the problem goes even deeper than reproductive rights? What if sexist social arrangements, including—but not limited to—restricted abortion access, can have harmful health consequences? And what if the consequences of sexism are felt by an entire society—not just women?

These are the questions that led me to conduct a recent study, published in the American Sociological Review.

Structural sexism and health in the US

To answer these questions, I developed a concrete way to measure a new concept I call "structural sexism." This is the degree of systematic gender inequality in power and resources to which someone is exposed. For example, working in a company or industry with very few women in powerful leadership roles represents exposure to structural sexism in the workplace.

Sexist misbehavior by individuals, such as sexual harassment, is typically obvious. But structural sexism can be more subtle. It often goes unnoticed because it is systemic rather than interpersonal.

I took advantage of the fact that different U.S. states have different laws, policies and institutions, some of which create more gender inequality than others. Then I looked at whether and how sexism is making people sick.

To determine the level of structural sexism in each state, I combined a measure of abortion access with several other state-level measures designed to capture the degree to which men and women are unequal. I looked at three additional arenas of society—political, economic and cultural.

These measures included the gender wage gap; gender differences in labor force participation and poverty rates; the proportion of state legislature seats occupied by men; the prevalence of religious conservatives in each state (which is linked to traditional gender roles and the exclusion of women from leadership positions); and the proportion of women who live in a county without an abortion provider. Higher values on each of these measures indicates higher structural sexism in a given arena. I added these measures together to reflect the overall level of sexism in each U.S. state.

In order to explore how structural sexism affects people's health, I used health and demographic information for a sample of more than 3,300 U.S. adults from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979. This study is ongoing and has followed individuals since their late teens or early 20s. I used data from the years 1998 through 2012 to observe the health consequences of structural sexism when people reached ages 40 and 50. Studying this midlife period is important because it is when health problems start to emerge.

I found that higher levels of overall structural sexism in a state resulted in worse health outcomes for both women and men alike.

Those living in states with the highest levels of structural sexism, such as Utah, Wyoming, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma, reported higher levels of chronic conditions, worse self-rated health and had worse physical functioning at age 40 and 50.

The size of the health effects was substantial. For example, women living in states with high structural sexism have nearly twice as many chronic conditions – like , heart disease and diabetes—as women living in low sexism states. This difference is equivalent to the health effects of being seven years older.

So it's not only women's health and bodily autonomy that are at risk when states pass new abortion restrictions. Everyone's health could potentially be harmed because these laws disempower women and contribute to sexist social environments that can make everyone sick.

Why is sexism bad for health?

Understanding why structural sexism would be harmful for is relatively straightforward. We typically think of women as the victims of sexism. Living in a more sexist environment is likely to reduce women's access to health-promoting factors like financial resources, high-quality health care, self-esteem, autonomy and social support. Structural sexism is also likely to increase women's exposure to health-harming factors like violence, discrimination and harassment, stress and poor working conditions.

But it may seem less obvious why structural sexism in state environments would also harm men's health. Many people have theorized that men benefit from the subordination of women.

I wasn't too surprised, however, to discover that sexism hurts men too. For one, research on other types of structural inequality and health, including structural racism and wealth inequality, has shown that inequality can harm everyone in a society. Inequality can damage social relationships, increase competition for dominance, undermine the social fabric and make the entire society less safe, less productive and less healthy.

Second, studies of masculinities and men's health suggest patriarchal social systems can foster a toxic culture that harms men as well as women. Pressure to be tough or macho can lead men to engage in risk-taking and unhealthy behaviors, like substance use and violence, and to avoid going to the doctor for necessary health care.

Finally, research in the developing world shows that gender equity is vital for economic development and poverty reduction. It is also important for improvements in population health. When women are empowered, they often influence social policy in ways that promote education, health care, social programs and other expenditures that improve health for the entire population—not just for women.

If structural sexism is bad for everyone's health, what can society do about it?

The key implication of my research on structural is that in the U.S. is not only a human rights issue, but also a problem. Gender equity policy is also smart health policy.

Any public policy that aims to protect and expand access to reproductive health services, increase women's political representation, close the gender wage gap or otherwise promote gender equity also has the potential to improve health for everyone—regardless of their gender.

Explore further

Structural sexism: Researcher offers new perspective on gender and health inequality

Journal information: American Sociological Review

Provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

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User comments

Sep 06, 2019
When a woman becomes pregnant, she is no longer one person. She created a new person, often because of an irresponsible act. The child in the picture is always ignored in these articles. The woman is reaping what she has sown by refusing to use protection. It's not that hard to not get pregnant. Abortion is a gruesome way to shirk the responsibility for a totally irresponsible act.

Sep 06, 2019

When a woman first becomes pregnant, the baby is just a single cell. EVERY cell in the human body has the potential to become a human via cloning albeit via artificial rather than natural means although that latter fact is totally irrelevant to the issue because why should that make a moral difference? Thus you can argue that because every cell of every person, not just the fertilized egg of a pregnant woman, has the potential to become a human being, every human is "no longer one person" (your words) and that the potential "child in the picture" (your words) is always ignored and its "a gruesome way to shirk the responsibility for a totally irresponsible act" (your words) to, for example, kill a single gum cell by brushing your teath or have some skin cells killed when you get vaccinated etc, because you are MURDERING a potential future human being (your logic, not mine).

Sep 06, 2019
And what if the consequences of sexism are felt by an entire society—not just women?

Well, that's entirely possible, if that thick line between hearing and affecting, is broken. And, no matter how tightly we shield our minds, you won't shut up.

Sep 06, 2019
I assert that if a person is clearly capable of consciousness with mind then killing him is generally immoral. But if the said person is clearly incapable of consciousness with mind then killing him is generally not immoral. It is unknown at exactly what point of what stage of the baby's development it first develops capability of consciousness with mind and in fact there may no such point but rather that capability occurs very incrementally. But, using my implicit reasons I implied in my previous above post, I assert one thing that IS morally black and white is that before the unborn baby develops a brain with its first brain cells firing, it definitely can NOT have consciousness with mind and therefore you can morally do whatever the hell you like with it; cut its head off or do lab experiments with it; at least as long as you then don't allow it to become consciousness. But once it has a brain with its first brain cells firing, a tiny bit of morally gray may creep in.

Sep 06, 2019
An embarrassingly obvious example of a fraudulent "experiment" intended to force a desired "conclusion". It can be said that specious "arguments" about the value of the ability to engage in murder of a fetus by craven whim are losing acceptance, so this "experiment" tries to "justify" abortion by craven whim to say it makes men healthier. With "may", "can", "potentially" almost everywhere, it's asserted that lack of the right to abortion by craven whim will make men engage in supposedly demanding activities to assert dominance over women. Why men would have to assert dominance if the law on abortion supposedly already does is eminently questionable.
Note, too, the claim that abortion is "a fundamental human right", among other things to avoid mental problems from "unwanted pregnancies". It's considered universal that people make do with their mistakes, not always being allowed to redo them. Will everyone now be allowed to sweep mistakes under the rug every time?

Sep 08, 2019
Even when using the measure (labeled "structural sexism") the author has not established causality rather than non-biased correlation. "The three criteria for establishing cause and effect – association, time ordering (or temporal precedence), and non-spuriousness – are familiar to most researchers from courses in research methods or statistics " [ https://www.stati...-effect/ ]. The tread leaps immediately into ideological discussion which in this area is often shaded by religious superstition.

That is a backdrop to the study, it uncovers a well known correlation between less health (and more religiosity) and less successful societies (here defined as US states).

- tbctd -

Sep 08, 2019
- ctd -

On the thread:

Biologically and socially, a fetus is not a child in traits, an early fetus is not an independent organism but acts as a parasite or symbiont at best. Hence the last date for non-medical abortions - aborting the fetus to save the mother - are in most nations decided so that it does not interfere with the mother's human rights. Practically it is set by whether or not the fetus survives outside the womb.

Obviously that is a gray area which is revised as technology progress. But in any case non-medical abortions happens weeks before the spinal cord has formed, and the fetal brain can sense pain.

There is no consensus on what "consciousness" would be. Rather, it is unclear if a birthed baby has any self awareness akin to adult animals until several months after average pregnancy termination, yet no one vouches for killing them. There is a very clear line between aborting a fetus and killing a baby!

Sep 09, 2019 early fetus is not an independent organism but acts as a parasite or symbiont at best.....There is a very clear line between aborting a fetus and killing a baby!

Yes, that line is enshrined in law as murder. So, no wonder, most would not vouch for it. It's also the reason, I surmise, that both sides of this issue, seeks to blur that line, each their own way, to best suit their purpose.
Sure, a fetus can be a tremendous drain on the physical and mental resources of its mother. Thus, I can see why you would think it a parasite. However, the immune system is a most potent of biological processes, against parasites, yet it acts to protect rather than be rid of the fetus. I expect, as our knowledge advances, we will discover all those symbiotic benefits of the unborn.

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