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The (Pseudo) Science of Not Trusting Women

An adult female receiving a vaccination that was administered by a public health clinician by way of a jet injector.

Science has a sexism problem. This isn’t news to women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), who recently put British Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt on blast for his denigrating comments about women scientists . Through their hilarious, snarky outrage in the #DistractinglySexy Twitterstorm women scientists worldwide continue to showcase their lab work and fieldwork – often as all-female teams working together – to buck the myth that women are too emotional for science.

It’s not merely a ‘boys’ club’ environment keeping women out of STEM careers or harassing them into early dropout from these fields. Simply put, contemporary societies often don’t trust women to accurately perceive reality and then act rationally and responsibly based on this perception. This is the case whether we’re talking about women in the lab or women filing reports of rape and domestic violence. Discriminatory beliefs about women’s capacity for honing a scientific mind in turn feed mistrust about women’s abilities to properly develop and use technology. Under this logic, women’s decisions are best left to authority figures whose gender identity allows them to cross the threshold of rational scientific progress that suddenly acts more like a force field when women, and people of colour, try to forge through it.

The fact that women are often not trusted to use technology correctly or are discouraged from engaging in STEM is a clear violation of the core human right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress”, including access without discrimination to scientific knowledge, and opportunities for all to contribute to the “scientific enterprise and freedom indispensable for scientific research”. Benefitting from and participating in scientific progress is one of the human rights that we talk about least but is perhaps one of the most important, especially for girls and women.

Using technology doesn’t just mean learning to code, but birth control, abortion (especially with medication), STI testing and treatment are all examples of medical technologies that are the benefits of scientific progress. Yet, women and adolescent girls are routinely barred from knowing about them or accessing them. As Reproductive Justice reminds us, ensuring sexual and reproductive autonomy for everyone isn’t limited to preventing unwanted pregnancies, but we must also secure the right to have children for those who want to become parents (on their own terms). It is telling that reproductive technologies like egg freezing and IVF that potentially enable women to extend their fertile years remain available only to a privileged few, who are not likely to be targets of coercive population control strategies.

The discovery of medical abortion – not by researchers in a lab somewhere, but by Brazilian women in the 1980s looking for creative ways to circumvent their country’s harsh restrictions on abortion – exemplifies the ways in which mistrust of women’s rationality, desires to control women’s sexuality, and narrow definitions of who has claim to scientific authority and progress all converge to paint one of the grimmer pictures of women’s health and rights. Cytotec (misoprostol), prescribed for ulcers, came with the warning that it should not be used during pregnancy since it could cause bleeding. Enterprising Brazilian women discovered that it could be used off-label to safely induce abortion early in pregnancy. Mostly through word-of-mouth, knowledge of this self-use technology reached women around the world all looking for safe, affordable means of ending unwanted pregnancies.

Evidence from these women’s ‘natural public health experiment’ was later validated by extensive clinical trials, including by the WHO which helped develop the standardised dosage and timing for inducing abortion with misoprostol, ideally in combination with mifepristone where available. The drug is on the WHO’s list of essential medicines in particular because it’s a powerful treatment for post-partum haemorrhage, a leading cause of maternal mortality. This subsequent testing is important since ideal dosage enhances the safety of the already safe method women were using, and women must have access to knowledge of best practices for using the drug. But an interesting thing happened once the question of medical abortion was taken up by authorities: information about and access to misoprostol is now being withheld from women, though they innovated its reproductive health applications in the first place.

The origins of who discovered the “little white bombshell”, arguably one of the most revolutionary scientific advances for sexual and reproductive health and rights, are neatly obscured by anti-abortion activists who use mistrust of women and pseudoscience about the ‘health risks’ of abortion as two of their most effective strategies. Much of the paternalistic handwringing about misoprostol’s danger to women’s health comes from questioning women’s abilities to make reasonable decisions about their bodies, and definitely from social regulation of female sexuality and reproductive freedom. This paternalism is compounded when the women in question are poor women of colour as they often are, faced with having to creatively work around broken health systems when they lack the resources to escape them. Abortion stigma contributes to a “hypersensitivity about misoprostol as an abortifacient”, meaning clinics, government officials and others remain reluctant to provide it even for post-partum haemorrhage because of a “disproportionate concern” that it would be used for abortions. Assumptions that if the drug is widely available women will “misuse” it (fail to understand instructions properly) or “abuse” it (induce abortions for any unwanted pregnancy, not just after rape or incest) remain significant obstacles to its wider availability.

Medical abortion is also a threat to scientific authorities because it is technology easily used without the help of a medical provider. Since there is doubt that women will use the drug safely without supervision (even though they did it before and are still doing it), some think the kinder option is to remove their opportunity to fail. An unintended side effect of anti-abortion lobbyists’ attack on medical abortion, however, has been to increase women’s awareness of misoprostol and encourage them to use it to work around encroaching restrictions. There is no test that can be used to verify whether a person has taken the drug: the symptoms of a spontaneous abortion and an induced medical abortion are exactly the same. When criminal action is taken against women suspected of self-administering abortion pills, like in recent cases in El Salvador, discriminatory profiling with no basis in scientific evidence is used to prove these women’s ‘guilt’.

A woman participates in a march on the International Day of Action for the Decriminalization of Abortion on Sept. 28, 2012, in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo by Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images.)

It’s not just countries that criminalise abortion that refuse to trust women. For instance, India and Britain have legal abortion but it is largely up to the medical provider – or the two doctors women are required to consult, in Britain’s case – to allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy or force her to continue it. The recent Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, anti-abortion activists in the United States have successfully used pseudoscientific ‘evidence’ of abortion’s risk to women’s health, such as specious claims that abortion causes depression and breast cancer and that general anaesthesia must be used to mitigate “fetal pain”, to close down clinics offering abortion. The legal slog required to restore these clinics to functioning will be long, but it may take even longer to dislodge the seeds of mistrust about women making their own health care decisions and public perceptions of the threat abortion poses.

The real threat of medically undetectable, provider- and protester-free abortion is to its opponents, whose concern is not about women’s health but is very much about their sex lives. If abortion opponents really think a woman’s entire life should be derailed by a single stray sperm, Katha Pollitt says, they must not think women matter much to begin with: “What can that mean except that women’s sexuality is what really defines them, not their brains and gifts and individuality and character, and certainly not their wishes or their ambitions or their will?”[1]

Keeping medical abortion out of the hands of women is hurting and killing many of them, and trusting women to be rational users of technology is key to ending preventable deaths, in the words of Francine Coeytaux and Elisa Wells:

Our challenge is to let women be the shapers and the users of this new technology, not the beneficiaries of what we can provide or what we think they need. Can we stop worrying about women’s “misuse” or “abuse” of misoprostol and show that we truly trust women with their own reproductive health care? (Italics added.) Let us remember that it was women who discovered this drug in the first place, specifically to circumvent the weakness of the health-care system. Let us give them back this powerful tool and get out of their way.

The bottom line is that we need to trust women to use and innovate technology. Bad things happen when we don’t. Combating sexism in STEM and giving support and resources to women working in these fields is part of the way forward, but so is fighting for women and girls to fully experience their right to the benefits of scientific progress, including life-saving and life-affirming medical technologies, no matter their profession or location.

[1] Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (New York: Picador, 2014), 90.

Cover image: An adult female receiving a vaccination that was administered by a public health clinician by way of a jet injector. (License public domain, CC0.)