Kamala Harris has made history as the first female, first Black, and first person of Asian descent to become vice president-elect. As the turbulent and trying Trump presidency comes to a close, and Harris prepares to assume her powerful post, this marks a moment of relief and hope for many women; an opportunity to gain back what’s been lost over the past four years, as well as push women’s health care forward for all.
“Time and time again, we’ve seen that women who fight power, who move into leadership positions, who challenge the system, are knocked back down, told to wait, told to be quieter and be nicer—this is especially true for women of color,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “So when I watched Kamala walking onto the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, I felt like I was walking right alongside her. I felt like my daughters were walking with her, and my grandmothers and my aunties and my girlfriends across the country. She refused to back down no matter what adversity she faced, and now she is going to the White House. In claiming her own power, Kamala empowers us all.”
As the country readies for a new chapter, here we take a look back at the efforts Harris has made to impact pressing women’s health issues—from increasing access to abortion to improving maternal health, and fighting against racial disparities—and consider how this momentum is primed to continue during the Biden-Harris administration. As Johnson puts it, “We are finally beginning a new chapter: one where we take full control of our bodies, our rights, our democracy, and our futures.”
Expanding Affordable Health Care
In 2018, Kamala Harris penned a New York Times piece about losing her mother to colon cancer in 2009, and what it revealed about the fractured U.S. health system. She also explained why cosponsoring 2017’s Medicare for All bill with Senator Bernie Sanders was so important to her. “One of the biggest issues on the Biden-Harris ticket was healthcare—providing access to everyone, and ensuring the American population that they didn’t want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare because there’s so many people that rely on it as their form of healthcare,” explains Dallas-based ob-gyn Jessica Shepherd. “So one of their strong pillars was to restore that and make sure that that was not taken away. For a lot of people, that was one of their reasons for voting for that ticket. They were frustrated, powerless, and they felt that they very well could have lost their health care.” Though Biden and Harris have held different views on healthcare reform in the past, their shared goal of expanding health insurance will surely increase the number of insured, and reduce costs for many more American women, especially those from disadvantaged populations. Plus, the pair will be giving the U.S.’s global pandemic response a long overdue overhaul with their newly formed COVID-19 task force, comprised of leading scientists and public health experts.
Supporting Abortion Rights
Since entering politics, Harris has been a steadfast champion for reproductive rights. “As a presidential candidate, she offered an inspiring vision for making abortion more accessible and expanding reproductive health care across the country,” says Johnson. She also notes that in Congress, the vice president-elect was a lead cosponsor of the EACH Woman Act to boldly repeal the Hyde Amendment, a ban on abortion coverage in federal health-insurance programs, most notably Medicaid for people with low incomes, and ensure abortion coverage for all people, no matter how they get their insurance. In addition to consistently opposing judicial nominees who are hostile to reproductive health and rights, Harris also cosponsored the Women’s Health Protection Act, a federal bill that protects the right to abortion care by creating a safeguard against bans and medically unnecessary restrictions, as well as enshrines into law that a person’s constitutional rights should not depend on their ZIP code, highlights Johnson.
Broadening Birth Control Access
Since childhood, Harris has understood the importance of contraception, having spent holidays in India with her progressive grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, who in the 1940s was known for traveling to rural areas of the country to educate impoverished communities on how to get birth control. Throughout her career, Harris has been committed to improving access to birth control. Most recently, in July, when the Supreme Court announced it would allow employers to drop the Affordable Care Act’s no-cost birth control policy if they object to it on religious grounds, Harris released a statement calling on Congress to take action to protect and expand access to contraception.
In choosing Harris as his vice president, president-elect Biden is committed to protecting and expanding access to birth control at a critical time. “The loss of RBG and the new seat that’s been filled in the Supreme Court by Amy Coney Barrett will have a long-term impact on women’s health and reproductive justice, and we have some work to do in order to [undo] steps that we’ve made backwards to make sure that we don’t go back to where we were prior to Roe vs. Wade,” explains Shepherd. “Harris understands the importance of women’s reproductive health and how we need to allow for women to have access, whether that is abortion, contraceptive care, or family planning. All of those really kind of run together when taking the stance that we should support women in their choices, rather than alienating and ostracizing them.”
Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis
In the words of Johnson, vice president-elect Harris’s work on the maternal health crisis and its disproportionate impact on Black women is “nearly unparalleled.” According to the latest data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women. “These outcomes are the result of bias of medical providers, structural racism, and economic inequality—leading to limited access to health care and a heightened risk of health complications,” explains Johnson.
In 2018, Harris introduced the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies Act (the Maternal CARE Act), a bill seeking to eliminate racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. “It specifically aimed to address how we train our providers, the access to care that that women can get, and what those actual obstacles are, and where those gaps are, focusing on those to make sure that we are addressing the issue for what it is and implementing the changes that need to be made,” explains Shepherd.
Harris has also worked with Rep. Lauren Underwood to introduce this year’s Black Maternal Health Momnibus to fill gaps in existing legislation. Among a comprehensive set of regulations and investments to address the crisis in Black women’s maternal mortality, the Momnibus Act will compile data on the underlying social determinants that lead to higher mortality rates to address the racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes among Black women in America. “It’s so incredibly important to making a difference and saving lives,” says Johnson.
Improving Care for Uterine Fibroids
Shortly before Harris was announced as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, she put forth the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act to initiate crucial research and education in relation to uterine fibroids. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 20 to 80% of women develop fibroids by the time they reach age 50. Studies have shown that, relative to white women, Black women are two to three times more likely to have fibroids, as well as experience more severe symptoms at younger ages. “What the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act is looking at is the economics of fibroids and how it impacts women’s lives, their communities’ lives, their jobs, their relationships, and family life,” explains Shepherd. “By putting $30 million a year into the National Institutes of Health, it’s putting monetary value to that in how we can expand research, which would allow more research to go towards uterine fibroids, as well as creating a plan for public education programs through the CDC.”
Advocating for Health Equity
From addressing the racial disparities in maternal health to calling further attention to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color, Harris continues to confront racial disparities across health and social care. As Johnson says, “As a woman of color herself, Harris intimately understands the institutional racism and structural barriers to health care that have always existed for Black, Latino, and APIA communities—and can begin the work to dismantle those systems of power.”