Women’s History Month celebrates what it is to be a woman and the great contributions women have made to society. As women have pressed forward as leaders in career, family caregiving, community, and beyond, key advancements in health have evolved with her. While there is still a ways to go to improve many aspects of women’s healthcare, we want to take a moment to celebrate three key healthcare milestones that have played a role in leveling the playing field.
Putting control in her hands
In 1914 public health nurse, Margaret Sanger, coined the term “birth control” as part of her decades-long campaign to make contraceptives legal and available to women. Her mother was pregnant 18 times, bearing 11 children, suffering 7 miscarriages resulting in health problems that lead to her death at the age of 49. While working as a nurse in New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger witnessed the effects that lack of birth control had on the poor immigrant woman’s health, many dying from childbirth and self-induced abortions. These experiences fueled her determination to inform and equip women with birth control access.
Together with her sister Ethel Byrne and activist Fania Mindell, Sanger opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn on October 16, 1916, directly defying the “Comstock Laws” forbidding birth control. Sanger’s work as President and chairman of Planned Parenthood of America culminated in her partnership with MIT graduate and philanthropist Katherine McCormick to support and fund the organization’s research development of the birth control pill in the 1950s.
“The Pill”, was FDA-approved in 1960 and made legal years later, giving generations of women the opportunity to achieve greater social and economic freedom simply by being able to plan their reproductive futures.
Oral contraceptives are effective in helping women manage the symptoms of chronic reproductive conditions such as endometriosis and PCOS, reducing menstrual cramps, regulating periods, preventing menstrual-related migraines. And they have opened the door to alternative forms of contraception such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), implants, injections, rings, and more.
The Affordable Healthcare Act lowered costs, eliminated denial of care and coverage due to preexisting conditions including pregnancy, and expanded access and coverage of preventative care services such as birth control.
Many women still struggle to find effective birth control due to lack of healthcare coverage, so providing low cost opportunities and continued information for all women is critical in helping all women have reproductive freedom
Improving breast care and survival for generations
Mammograms were first performed using traditional X-ray machines, which exposed women to high doses of radiation. In 1969 technical innovations focused on bringing low-radiation mammograms to patients. With safer, more accurate screening, mammograms have evolved over the years as a standard best practice in women’s healthcare. The new screening option catalyzed conversation and education around prevention and genetic predispositions, creating a higher awareness and support of new research and treatment options. This technology also made it possible for a higher percentage of cases to be detected earlier, improving survival rates. In 2000, digital mammography and 2011 3D mammography innovations advanced the effectiveness of the screenings.
Regular and widespread screening, especially for underserved communities where education and access contribute to care inequities is still a challenge today. Research also needs to become more inclusive to address the needs of women of color. While Black women have a lower incidence of breast cancer than other racial/ethnic groups they have a high mortality rate, shorter survival rate, and are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative cancer, which is more aggressive and difficult to treat. They are also more likely to be diagnosed before the age of 50 and have dense breast tissue which is a predictor of breast cancer risk and hinders the sensitivity of a mammogram.
Expanding the joy of parenthood
Experimentation with in vitro fertilization (IVF) goes as far back as 1800 when embryologist, Samuel Leopold Schenk, collected ova and sperm from rabbits and guinea pigs and noted that cell division was possible. The first recorded birth of a baby conceived through artificial insemination was in the late 1880s. Over 8 million babies have been born around the world since Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, was born in 1978. More than 1 million babies have been born via IVF in the US since 2014 alone.
As much as these technologies have helped us grow as a society, most people struggle with the costs of undergoing treatments and lack of coverage by health plans. However as more advancements are made in technology and research we are poised to see more opportunities for positive outcomes.
Acknowledging and treating her silent pain
One of the many advances in maternal care is postpartum depression (PPD) screening. PPD was once noted as a form of “hysteria” or “insanity” with many women undergoing societal scrutiny for “not accepting the role of motherhood”. Painful electroshock therapy and institutionalization were the “cure” for most severe cases. And for many, suffering in silence led to broader mental and emotional traumas impacting the whole family unit.
Today, awareness and PPD screenings are integrated into prenatal and postpartum care. In 1987, The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale was developed to help doctors predict the onset and severity of depression in mothers after birth. Pediatricians now screen women for signs of depression during early well-baby visits. Thanks to advocacy and awareness groups, women are now able to voice their battles with PPD to a larger community ready to support their journey to wellness.