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Do you want to have kids and become a parent one day? Maybe the thought of a gaggle of toddlers running around is your worst nightmare. Or maybe you haven't given it any thought at all. Either way, reproductive health affects you, and everyone else on the planet. It is how we all got here after all, but did you know that reproductive health is about much more than having babies?
Reproductive health is a very divisive topic - it raises many philosophical and moral questions, and discussion can get heated very easily. And yet, it's an important one. Regardless of your ethical or political standing, reproductive health is linked to many human rights, meaning people are entitled to proper health care. Let's take a look at the components of reproductive health from a human geography perspective.
Reproductive health, like health in general, is vital to physical and mental well-being. But what does this mean?
Reproductive health relates to the health of the reproductive organs, the ability to reproduce, and access to healthcare professionals that specialise in reproductive health care.
Reproductive health is also heavily related to the freedom to decide if, when, and how many times a person wants to reproduce. The discourse surrounding this topic often separates it from other types of health care. Many systems within the body receive specialised care, such as the digestive, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, and so on. Why, then, is reproductive health so divisive? Let's look at some of the components of reproductive health care to get a better grasp of what it is we're talking about.
The components of reproductive health can make people feel awkward, embarrassed, or outright hostile. This is because they are considered taboo. The three components of reproductive health are family planning, sexual health, and maternal health.
Access to all of these services listed above decreases the risk of maternal and infant mortality. Generally, countries without suitable supports in place, without access to reproductive health care, are more likely to be Low-Income Countries (LICs) and experience low levels of economic development. High-Income Countries (HICs) usually have greater access to family planning services and high-quality health care. The components of reproductive health, and how prevalent they are in society, is a good indicator of how economically developed a state is. However, this is not a binary rule; there are many highly developed nations with very poor health services and little to no reproductive health services.
'Development' is a vague term that often fails to grasp what it is like to live in a certain country. Using economic data alone is not enough to determine whether a country is successful or not. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Gender Inequality Index (GII) are therefore used to measure countries' economic and social development. There are other measures of development, but both of these, in particular, help to portray the importance of reproductive health.
The HDI essentially measures the overall quality of life. It is broken down into dimensions and indicators. The dimensions are a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.1 The indicators assess how strong or weak the dimensions are in terms of measuring human development. The three indicators of the GII are empowerment, the labour market, as well as reproductive health itself.
When a country's life expectancy is high, this indicates that a long and healthy life is likely. Countries with long life expectancies rank high on the HDI. High levels of infant mortality indicate lower levels of human development.
Life expectancy can be increased, and the infant mortality rate can be decreased with good-quality reproductive health and education.
A higher number of years spent in school indicates high levels of human development. This means that people are more likely to be knowledgeable about reproductive health and contraception and are less likely to have large families. Health care providers are also more likely to be readily available during childbirth, for sexual health exams, and for family planning services. With access to health care, people are less likely to transmit STIs, and sexual encounters are less likely to result in an unexpected pregnancy. The rate of HIV/AIDs decreases, and this drastically improves not only life expectancy and infant mortality rates but the overall quality of life. The likelihood of surviving childbirth is also higher.
When people receive more years of schooling, particularly when girls are given access to education, the same result is seen; an increase in childbirth survival for both child bearer and baby. When those who menstruate receive sanitary products, they are also less likely to miss out on school during menstruation. Education improves the likelihood of noticing abnormal shifts during menstrual cycles and therefore improves the ability to access treatment for potential health issues. All of this indicates that a country is highly developed socially. When countries have a high level of social development, economic development is likely to follow.
To learn more about measures of development, check out our explanations on Gender Inequality, Development Theories, Fertility Rate and Infant Mortality Rate.
The reproductive organs can cause a whole host of health problems. Endometriosis, HIV/AIDs, sexual violence, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), uterine cancer, hormone imbalance, and sexually transmitted diseases are only some of the issues people may face in their lifetimes.
Developed countries are better equipped to treat people who experience reproductive health problems. Reproductive health issues can be exacerbated when people don't have easy access to health services. People experiencing health issues in developing countries face many challenges and boundaries when seeking reproductive health care. The likelihood of a skilled health care professional, a safe and private location, and distance to clinics or hospitals all have to be taken into account. When people don't have access, reproductive health problems are more likely.
Besides the physical issues people have to deal with, there are also political, social and cultural issues linked to reproductive health. Countries that score poorly on the HDI and GII are less likely to promote reproductive health. Countries such as Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark, which all have high scores for both HDI and gender equality, possess informative and widely accessible reproductive health education.
The importance of reproductive health is not insignificant - it ensures the continuation of our species. However, reproductive health is also interconnected with several human rights, which ensure that our right to life is a good one;
...the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination.2
Essentially, access to good quality reproductive health care and sex education can transform a society. When importance is placed on reproductive health, girls tend to stay in school longer and then contribute to the workforce. Children are more likely to live past the age of 5, and far fewer people die in childbirth or from preventative pregnancy complications.
Geographically, it is not as simple as reproductive health is good in developed countries and bad in developing countries. This shows poor geographic thinking - nuance is important here. Let's take a look at an example that highlights this.
There are several consequences when reproductive health is prioritised. As mentioned above, childbirth survivability is higher, and infant mortality also decreases. But what happens when reproductive health care is limited?
The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world3. This number increases for minority women, particularly African American women. Teenage pregnancy is highest in US states with the most conservative reproductive health laws and where sex education is discouraged or banned in high schools. As a result of Roe v. Wade being overturned in early 2022, these numbers are likely to worsen.
The US also plays a significant role in global reproductive health. The Global Gag Rule (also called the Mexico City Policy) was implemented by President Regan in 1985. The policy prevented NGOs from receiving US federal aid if the organisation provided any reproductive services that mentioned or suggested abortion. This resulted in many clinics closing. The clinics that remained open were limited in the reproductive services they could provide.
The policy was reversed by President Clinton and then reinstated by President Bush. It was reversed again by President Obama, reinstated by President Trump and then reversed once more by President Biden in January 2021. If the Global Gag Rule is in effect, the number of abortions globally increases. A lack of funding towards other reproductive health services also results in an increase in unplanned pregnancies.
When discussing reproductive health, it is important to remember that women and girls are not the only people affected. In this section, we will focus purely on female reproductive health. It is female reproductive health, in particular, that often results in emotionally and politically charged debates. Because of the ethics surrounding the right to life, when life begins, women's rights have been limited in many countries around the world. Abortion is the topic that garners the most attention when discussing reproductive health. However, there are several other issues that concern female reproductive health.
In an attempt to discourage sexual activity and retain virtue and purity, female genital mutilation (FGM) has been practised by some cultures for centuries. FGM is a highly dangerous procedure and provides no medical benefit. The results can include infertility, painful urination and sexual encounters, septicaemia/sepsis, and death. FGM is practised in at least 27 countries in Africa, Oman, Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, the US, the UK and some European countries.
In an attempt to justify FGM, the preservation of culture is often used. Though FGM is performed on babies, it is considered a right of passage for young girls and teenagers, signifying the transition to womanhood and indicating a girl's readiness for marriage. In this case, female reproductive health and the desire to control it is the genesis of much trauma and violence.
When reproductive health is prioritised, as well as an increase in gender equality, the economic development of a country increases.
Most maternal deaths around the world are thought to be preventable.4
Maternal death is a death that occurs while pregnant or within 42 days after pregnancy and not from accidental causes.
Geographically, women in the developing world are more likely to die from treatable pregnancy issues than women in the developed world. Gender discrimination can be deadly not only to women but to economic growth. Economies thrive when women are given financial freedom and where gender discrimination is low.
Read more about women and the economy in our explanation on Microloans for women!
Reproductive health is the health of the reproductive organs and the ability to reproduce.
There are many problems in reproductive health, including cancers of the reproductive organs, endometriosis, PCOS, hormone imbalances, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The three components of reproductive health are family planning, maternal health and sexual health.
The importance of reproductive health includes; living a long healthy life, and having your human rights respected.
Culture affects reproductive health in multiple ways. In some cultures, FGM is a common practice, or abortion may be illegal. This results in high maternal and infant mortality rates. Cultures that promote equality often have greater access to reproductive health services and family supports.
What is reproductive health?
Reproductive health is the physical and mental well-being of a person with regard to their reproductive organs, the ability to reproduce, as well as the freedom to decide if, when and how many times to reproduce.
What are the problems associated with reproductive health?
Physical health issues.
What are the components of reproductive health?
Family planning, sexual health, maternal health.
True or false; reproductive health plays no role in economic development?
False. Reproductive health is very important to economic health and is an indicator of development.
What does HDI stand for?
Human Development Index.
How are life expectancy and reproductive health connected?
When people have access to reproductive health care, maternal and infant mortality rates decrease.
What is the Global Gag Rule?
The Global Gag Rule is a US policy that prevents US federal aid from being used by non-governmental organisations that mention or suggest abortion services.
What is the Global Gag Rule also known as?
The Mexico City Policy.
What does family planning have to do with reproductive health?
Family planning provides medical and social care for people who find themselves pregnant. This might include fertility and genetic screenings.
True or false; countries that have a high score on the Gender Inequality Index usually have good access to reproductive health care and no restrictive reproductive health laws.
False. Countries that have a low score on the Gender Inequality Index usually have access to reproductive health care and no restrictive reproductive health laws.
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