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Capitalism & Sexual Health

Capitalism and Sexual Health

Written and researched by Tomei Kuehl
Accompanying artworks selected in partnership with Talia Cardin, Youth-facilitator to the Youth Sexual Health Program Board


 “Capitalism is defined as an economic system in which a country’s trade, industry, and profits are controlled by private companies, instead of by the people whose time and labor powers those companies.”

–  Definition provided by Teen Vogue

In 1912, JW Williams, a professor of gynecology, published a paper, “Medical education and the midwife problem in the United States” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, recommending the elimination of the practice of midwifery. His motivation was to professionalize the medical field to increase professional standards and increase earning potential. Further the American Medical Association saw midwives as competitors for childbirth, one of the most reliable sources of hospital revenue (Merelli, 2017). This campaign was effective because midwives were largely African American and Native American women, and the United States racist history made it easy to spread suspicions of witchcraft to convince women that they would be better suited with a doctor – likely male and white – to safely deliver their child.

American physicians, who were largely white men, formed the American Medical Association and began lobbying against abortion, in part to neutralize some of the competition from midwives. Within a generation, every state had laws criminalizing abortions (Bruder, 2022).

The United States is the only country in the developed world without universal healthcare. Early attempts at universal healthcare in the United States were met with opposition from doctors, insurance companies, businesses, and some conservative labor unions who considered it unnecessary and beyond the scope of government. In 1944, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter – founders of the first political consulting firm – on behalf of the California Medical Association, opposed Governor Warren’s plan for compulsory health insurance in the state, paid for through Social Security (Merelli, 2017). In 1949, on behalf of the American Medical Association, Whitaker and Baxter opposed President Truman’s proposal of a public health plan (Merelli, 2017). Both of their efforts were successful and have resulted in a patchwork healthcare system based on wealth, with the lack of universal healthcare coverage impacting people of color greatest.

Sexual and reproductive health are necessary components of universal health coverage. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which have been adopted by 193 countries though not the United States, includes access to sexual and reproductive health services in the definition of universal access (Guttmacher Institute, 2021). According to the Guttmacher Institute, “every dollar spent on contraceptive services beyond the current level would save $3 in the cost of maternal, newborn and abortion care…bundling sexual and reproductive health service provision offers additional cost savings – such as STI treatment, safe abortion care and safe childbirth services – and can prevent dangerous and expensive complications” (Guttmacher Institute, 2021).


  • Bruder, J. (2022, May) The Abortion Underground: Inside the covert network of activists preparing for a post-Roe future. The Atlantic
  • Guttamacher Institute. Sexual and Reproductive Health Care is Key to Achieving Universal Health Coverage. (July 2021). https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2021/07/sexual-and-reproductive-health-care-key-achieving-universal-health-coverage
  • Merelli, A.  (2017, January 27). The reason childbirth is over-medicalized in America has its roots in racial segregation. Quartz
  • Merelli, A. (2017, July 18). National Sickness: A history of w the US is the only rich country without universal health care. Quartz