Jill Biden’s dystopian vision for women’s health

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The White House’s much-lauded Initiative on Women’s Health Research launched its first major commitment this month, a $100 million “Sprint for Women’s Health.” Targeting “industry and venture capital,” it aims to derisk advancements to create a pathway for investors to invest in new discoveries and technologies in the women’s health space. 

In a moment with vast economic gaps in women’s health and reproductive health care in crisis, this vision for the future — venture capital accelerating commercial tech products to market — is dystopian. The Sprint will award proposals primarily based on commercial viability, not impact on women’s health. 

The Women’s Health movement has aimed, since the 1970s, to put knowledge in the hands of women and to build collective power within communities around needs identified by women. The Sprint for Women’s Health sharply diverges from this vision. Appropriating the mission of women’s health equity and a potentially transformative infusion of government support, it diverts public resources into private profit-driven businesses. 

This program is an outgrowth of a dangerous movement Jamie Marsella and colleagues in Harvard’s GenderSci Lab have termed “investment feminism.” Frustrated with policy solutions, investment feminism posits that gender health equity can be achieved only by harnessing the marketplace. Reflecting this ideology, McKinsey recently released a report referring to closing the women’s health gap as a “trillion-dollar opportunity.” 

The White House project, helmed by first lady Jill Biden, prioritizes proposals that aim to develop technologies that will be profitable in a “competitive healthcare marketplace.” We see two problems: first, it confuses patients with customers and, second, it substitutes the criterion of empirically supported science for technologies on the cusp of marketability. The “Sprint” stands to advance the pocketbooks of venture capital and health care technology firms. The endpoint will be consumer products at the expense of much needed but unprofitable research, policies and solutions. 

Biden is correct that women are under-served by existing technologies and systems. But this “women’s health gap” is not the result of a lack of interest from financial firms. The for-profit women’s health sector collectively raised $1.14 billion from venture capital investors in 2023; Femtech is one of the largest growth areas in this sector. This is hardly an area in need of government funding. Despite all of this private investment, we have yet to see changes in women’s health outcomes, especially for women in historically marginalized demographic groups. 

Some diagnostics companies specializing in female-specific diseases, for example, claim to offer women the opportunity to “become pioneers” and “transform gynecological health” by using a smart tampon or pad device that allows companies to harvest data and, potentially, develop future diagnostics and treatment. These promises have yet to be realized, but even if they were, the customer sending menstrual data has no guarantee of access to treatments or diagnostic tools that might emerge. Only the companies that succeed in creating them — or at least persuading investors to keep them afloat — receive a return on investment. 

More individual at-home diagnostics and smartphone health apps for women will only increase existing health disparities. In addition to concerns over misusing data (especially since Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization), products such as fertility tracking apps have also come under scrutiny for lack of evidence that they provide reliable enough information to successfully conceive or to prevent unintended pregnancies. 

Far from removing barriers for women without regular access to a physician or specialist, these technologies are most effective when used in conjunction with the existing medical establishment. Sending $100 million to ready-for-market technologies builds a future where women’s health tools are more convenient for the wealthy and well-connected, while continuing to neglect policies and public infrastructure investment for those who need it the most.

The White House initiative overlooks the fact that many, if not most, women’s health issues are failures of policy. Too often, women are America’s social safety net, but individual women cannot counteract the health effects of precarious work conditions, lead in city water supplies and industrial pollution (to provide a few examples), or address the inequitable cost of their health care by themselves. 

What women need — and deserve — is better policy. We need labor policies including paid sick leave, increased minimum wage and worker safety protections. We need public policies and funding for high-quality child and elder care. We need environmental policies that address air and water pollution, reduce dependence on toxic resources, curb climate change and consider waste-streams of new innovations. We need all communities to have access to transportation and health care facilities. 

We applaud the White House’s elevation of women’s health, underscored this week by an executive order signed by President Biden. But high-tech, money-making solutions are not what is most needed to advance the health of women. Women’s health advocates should join in an urgent call to refocus this presidential initiative on a vision that remains true to the women’s health movement, addressing the obstacles to health for all women and empowering women to have control over their bodies, the role of technology in their lives and their futures.

Jamie Marsella is a PhD candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University. Katharine Lee is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Tulane University. Sarah Richardson is the Aramont Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and directs the Harvard GenderSci Lab.

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