The Hidden Assault on Women’s Health

It’s no longer news that women’s health is under attack in the U.S. Ongoing efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, laws shutting down abortion clinics and repeated attempts to water down the gain for women won under the Affordable Care Act all add up to a war on women’s health. But there is a hidden assault against women’s health that has received almost no media coverage, because it concerns a hidden problem: medical care and research funding for autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, disproportionately affect women. Of the approximately 50 million Americans currently living with autoimmune disease, 30 million are female. Women comprise 75 percent of sufferers in the U.S.

Despite the widespread nature of these ailments, fewer than 13 percent of those surveyed can name even one autoimmune disease—making it an already-hidden epidemic afflicting American women. And despite the millions of Americans living with autoimmune disease, research in this area has long been underfunded.

This situation is about to get worse: the 2018 projected budget of the National Institutes for Health shows a funding cut of 124 percent for research into autoimmune diseases. This can be seen in light of the overall anti-science stance that that Trump administration has adopted, as the president’s proposed budget calls for an overall spending cut to the NIH from $31.8 billion to $26 billion.

In addition to decreased research monies, the looming specter of healthcare repeal also poses threats. While the most recent Republican effort to repeal the ACA failed in the Senate, further efforts to repeal or simply weaken the law seem likely. In terms of a repeal of the ACA, the greatest danger for autoimmune patients lies in attempts to weaken coverage requirements for patients with pre-existing conditions. Despite promises from President Trump and GOP leaders in Congress that pre-existing conditions would continue to be covered, the latest version of Trumpcare sought to re-establish a lengthy list of conditions that would allow insurers to deny coverage to patients.

Autoimmune disease causes the body to turn against itself: the immune system attacks healthy tissue, perceiving normal organs and tissues as invading enemies. Most women are diagnosed with such illnesses during their reproductive years, with some women becoming ill when they are in their teens or twenties. Autoimmune diseases are incurable and chronic, and a significant number of patients become disabled. All patients require constant supervision from specialists, and many rely on expensive medications to get through daily life.

To be fair, not all autoimmune patients have been satisfied with the ACA. But if guarantees for coverage of pre-existing conditions are dropped, women may be reluctant to seek diagnosis—which would only allow their health to worsen. Autoimmune diseases do not tend to get better with time, and once afflicted with such an ailment, you are likely to acquire even more illnesses—your immune system may begin to attack other parts of the body, such as the gut, kidneys or central nervous system.

Autoimmune disease can create catastrophic consequences for patients—thus, greater funding for research, better insurance coverage and improved quality of care are desperately needed. But the approach thus far favored by both the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress does not suggest that any of these outcomes will occur. Instead, women suffering from chronic, disabling illnesses may be unable to find consistent healthcare or to pay for that care. That means devastation for millions of American women in the prime of life—a dystopic situation we have already experienced, before the ACA.

No reasonable person could wish such a life on any American—man, woman or child. Except, apparently, the current leaders of our government.


Amy Newlove Schroeder teaches writing and ethics in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and Boston Review.