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When Healthcare is Politicized

This article originally appeared in O'Dwyers Public Relations October Healthcare Magazine

On September 1, women awoke to learn that Texas had enacted a new law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The Texas law, which prohibits abortion before most people even know they’re pregnant, is one of the strictest abortion bans we’ve seen. As if it wasn’t cruel enough, the law also authorizes private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone else who helps a woman get an abortion, including the Lyft driver who gives a woman a ride to the clinic or the friend who helps a woman pay for the abortion.

Like other abortion restrictions in this country, this law will disproportionately impact low-income, immigrant and communities of color. According to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, Texans will now have to travel “20 times farther to get a safe and legal abortion, increasing travel times an average of 3.5 hours by car or bus each way.” This is on top of the burdens faced by women seeking an abortion, like taking time off from work or school and finding childcare.

Abortion restrictions have far-reaching impacts felt across the country. More than a dozen states have tried to pass similar abortion bans, but have been unsuccessful. Now, with the precedent set by Texas, these states are emboldened to try again.

How does this impact the millions of women of reproductive age who live in these states? The shock, desperation and fear felt by women as they try to access abortion services is unprecedented. According to the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, research shows that, “carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is dangerous to a woman’s physical and emotional safety,” and may result in “more women keeping in contact with violent partners, which puts both women and their children at increased risk of violence.” For women across the nation and throughout the world, these laws increase abortion stigma, which shames and silences women who seek abortions— as well as abortion providers—and increases the occurrence of unsafe abortion.

It's Not Just Abortion

Abortion is certainly not the only healthcare service that’s been politicized. Transgender individuals have been fighting for their right to healthcare for decades, with Medicare only recently lifting its ban on gender confirming surgeries in 2014. Research shows that transgender individuals are consistently underserved by the American medical system and face regular prejudice and discrimination by healthcare providers. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, transgender individuals, compared to the general population, suffer from more chronic health conditions and experience higher rates of health problems related to HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental illness and sexual and physical violence.

Just as with abortion, transgender healthcare is currently under attack: By April of this year, 2021 had already broke records by becoming the worst year for anti-transgender legislation since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking data more than 15 years ago. Across 33 states, at least 117 anti-trans bills were introduced, many of which restricted or banned transgender healthcare.

Notably, Arkansas became the first state to pass a bill prohibiting doctors from providing gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers, hormone therapies and transition-related surgeries, to minors in a move the ACLU said would “send a terrible and heartbreaking message” to transgender youth. Texas is also pushing anti-transgender legislation that would “classify gender-affirming treatments like hormones and surgeries as child abuse and ban puberty blockers provided by a physician.”

Legislation like this is incredibly dangerous. Trans youth are already more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than their cisgender counterparts, and one crisis hotline for transgender individuals saw a 72 percent increase in calls from Texas compared to the previous year, suggesting that anti-transgender legislation has a direct effect on the mental health of transgender individuals. In addition, one 2019 study from the Williams Institute found that trans adults who can’t access hormones and other gender-affirming care report higher rates of suicide attempts and ideation.

According to advocates, it’s no mistake that bills restricting women’s and transgender healthcare are surging at the same time, calling it a “coordinated attack.” Jules Gill-Peterson, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, explained that anti-abortion and anti-transgender healthcare bills “share the same kind of idea. They are really restrictive infringements on bodily autonomy, on individual rights and the state taking an aggressive, moralizing police role.”

So, how can healthcare communicators and marketers fight back against the stigma that’s created when healthcare is politicized and increase access to care for all patients?

1. Cut Through the Headlines and Legal Speak

Don’t expect the average person to understand the nuances of state law or Supreme Court precedent. People seeking healthcare in states with restrictive laws often feel confused, stressed and desperate. Craft clear, direct language that provides essential information, and above all, connects patients to the services they need.

2. Normalize the Conversation

In recent years, we’ve seen PR campaigns centered around, “Abortion is Healthcare,” “Our Clinic is Open” and “Care for Every Body.” Create campaigns that focus on reducing stigma and supporting a counter-narrative that normalizes reproductive and gender-affirming services.

3. Center Patients

Whether a political debate is about controlling women’s bodies or gender-neutral bathrooms, what’s so often missing from these conversations is the real-life experiences. Elevate the voices of marginalized people in earned and owned media to keep the focus where it belongs.

4. Back to Basics

Healthcare is personal and it’s private, but fears over lack of privacy is a documented barrier to many seeking services. Confidentiality in medical treatment, especially related to sexual and reproductive health, is a protected constitutional right. Don’t underestimate the importance of including “privacy” and “confidentiality” wherever sensitive services are listed.

5. Replace Political Jargon with Facts

Healthcare is personal and it’s private, but fears over lack of privacy is a documented barrier to many seeking services. Confidentiality in medical treatment, especially related to sexual and reproductive health, is a protected constitutional right. Don’t underestimate the importance of including “privacy” and “confidentiality” wherever sensitive services are listed.

The Final Word

While politics are deeply intertwined with the delivery of essential healthcare services, communicators can play a role in combating the stigma that creates barriers to care and results in poorer health outcomes for our most vulnerable communities.

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