Earlier this month, philanthropist Melinda Gates announced that, over the next ten years, she will invest $1 billion in new efforts to achieve gender equality in the United States.
This is certainly cause for optimism. Here’s the best-case scenario: Gates’ investment through her company, Pivotal Ventures, will support feminist organizations and activists fighting for a seat at the decision-making table. Priority for funding will be given to the historically marginalized women in this country—including women of color, poor women, indigenous women, disabled women, queer women, and trans women. We will see more diverse women represented in the media and in senior executive roles across the public, private, and social sectors. Everyone will have access to affordable child care. Finally, this investment will spur others with power and influence to prioritize gender equality in all of their work.
Unfortunately, this scenario remains completely out of reach unless we address the most insidious and dangerous threat to gender equality: the escalating assault on reproductive rights.
Any person who does not control their own body is not free. In order to achieve gender equality, we need to eliminate practices that deny women and other people who can get pregnant their rights over their bodies. Not one dollar of Gates’ investment will address this critical issue.
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Unfortunately, for those of us working in the field, this glaring omission comes as no surprise. In 2014, Gates made her views on abortion clear, chastising others for “conflating [abortion] with the consensus on so many of the things we need to do to keep women healthy.”
The fact is that deciding whether and when to have a child is central to a woman’s economic success, educational attainment, and general health and well-being. A large body of research has examined the effects of abortion access on economic outcomes, ultimately concluding that women’s economic security is directly affected by access to abortion. No matter Gates’ personal feelings about abortion, her mission to achieve gender equality will fail if she continues to ignore these facts.
Meanwhile, conservatives in power are doing everything they can to erode the right to bodily autonomy and access to safe and legal abortion services in this country.
At the state level, just this year alone, states have adopted 59 new restrictions on abortion rights and access. Some states even restrict private insurance plans from covering abortion. From near-total bans on abortion care to targeted regulations of abortion providers, pregnant people are systematically prevented from exercising their civil and human right to abortion care. These restrictive policies are not only making abortion services harder to access; they’re making it more expensive, increasing the financial burden on pregnant people.
At the federal level, since 1977, the Hyde Amendment has prohibited the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening condition. Hyde violates international law and forces those who receive health coverage through Medicaid or other federal insurance programs to face two sets of financial obstacles if they need an abortion: the direct costs of the procedure without insurance and the practical costs imposed by state laws (like multiple doctor’s office visits).
The Trump administration is also working to amend the Affordable Care Act so that private insurance providers that cover abortion services would be required to offer a version of their plans that do not. This policy would reinforce the already stigmatizing and discriminatory treatment of abortion.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Trump administration’s new domestic “gag rule” bans U.S. health centers that receive federal Title X funding from performing, promoting, referring for, or supporting abortion as a method of family planning. More than four million patients rely on Title X funding for reproductive health each year, and it’s no secret that this new rule will have an especially devastating impact on poor women and women of color. Denying this critical medical care will increase maternal mortality rates, maternal illness, and unsafe abortions.
The far-reaching socioeconomic consequences of these policies are well documented. If Gates truly wants to trigger a monumental shift toward gender equality, particularly in the workplace, she must meaningfully address this issue head-on. Otherwise, her $1 billion investment initiative is destined for failure.