Women lost decades of progress after COVID — Roe's repeal would erase more

On Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled its intent to roll back or dismantle Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Parenthood, the two precedents that secure a women’s right to seek abortion care. At issue is a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks — a ban the state says is justified in part because societal norms have progressed so far that women need no longer fear economic hardship or other adverse consequences if forced to carry a pregnancy to term.

This argument is flat-out wrong.

The risk of death due to childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than the risk associated with an abortion. For Black women, the risk is especially acute; they face maternal mortality rates on par with those in poor countries like Mexico and Uzbekistan. What’s more, extensive research on U.S. women who were unable to obtain wanted abortions finds that they are more likely to experience serious health complications, not only during pregnancy but for years after giving birth. They are four times more likely to live in poverty, and forcing them to give birth can derail any hope of bettering their lives.

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All this, in a wealthy nation where Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Parenthood, which holds that states cannot put undue burdens on women seeking abortion care, have long been the laws of the land.

Rolling back the protections of those two cases will seriously threaten the health, security and dignity of women in the U.S. Predictably and tragically, much of the damage will fall on women in poverty and women of color.

This threat to our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our neighbors and our colleagues in the U.S. comes at a time when women and girls around the globe are facing unprecedented levels of violence and inequities.

Even before COVID hit, women’s and girls' access to education and reproductive services was severely curtailed in many regions. The pandemic has made it so much worse. So, perhaps surprisingly, has climate change.

The United Nations reported a stunning 30 percent increase in domestic violence in France and a 25 percent increase in Argentina during pandemic lockdowns. Domestic violence also rose in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Given that a staggering 250 million girls and women worldwide experienced physical or sexual violence in the year before COVID emerged, these statistics are too awful to comprehend.

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On the economic front, the pandemic has hit U.S. women — particularly women of color — especially hard, significantly widening inequities in the labor market. 

Meanwhile, extreme weather events brought on by climate change have kept 4 million girls in lower-income countries from finishing their educations this year alone, according to the Malala Fund.

These inequities don’t just damage the prospects of individual girls and women; they’re holding back our growth as societies. A McKinsey study from 2016 found that if women participated in the economy at rates equivalent to men, they could boost global GDP by an amount equivalent to the economies of the U.S. and China — combined. 

The best snapshot of women’s status overall comes from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, which looks at multiple metrics of equity, from income to education to political participation to health. This year, they found that women and girls have slipped backward 39 years on these metrics during the pandemic.

Almost four decades of progress, lost!

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Even if forward momentum resumes, the World Economic Forum says it will now take 135 years to achieve gender parity globally. 135 years

This brings me back to the Supreme Court. The evidence is unequivocal: Restricting reproductive rights will damage the health, welfare and dignity of women across this country.

Women must have access to the health care they need — free of coercion, discrimination and violence — if they are to live to their fullest potential. I’ve said before and will repeat as long as it needs to be said: Women must control their bodies to control their health, their economic prospects and their life trajectory.

This should be a moment when women and our allies in the U.S. muster our resources to fight for our sisters around the world — to make 2022 the year when we claw back those 39 years of progress lost to the pandemic and take big leaps toward gender parity. Instead, we are facing our own anguishing setback.

I will continue to press the case for international action to lift up women and girls, in collaboration with many others. As a first step, I’m proud that my institution, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has joined the World Economic Forum and many others in a campaign to tackle the most urgent crises in gender equity. The cause is too important for us to let it drop. But even as we’re fighting for equity around the world, we will also have to double down on efforts to protect the rights of women in the U.S.

It’s customary to say that our daughters’ futures depend on advancing women’s rights. I agree, but I’d broaden the argument: Gender equity is crucial to all of our futures. Let’s make it a reality.

Michelle A. Williams is dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.