Sen. Kamala Harris has long been an advocate for various women’s health issues, a passion that was ignited in the newly announced vice presidential candidate at an early age.
Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, left India alone at age 19 for the U.S., where she attended the University of California Berkeley and eventually became a leading breast cancer researcher.
“She wanted to travel to learn science because her mission in life was to cure cancer,” Harris said during a Democratic presidential debate in October.
The now vice presidential hopeful has called her mother “a force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life.” As a child, Harris and her little sister, Maya Harris, would even accompany their mother to the lab and help clean test tubes, according to The Mercury News.
While Harris’ mother died of colon cancer in 2009, there’s no doubt her research influenced her daughter. Harris has been vocal about the importance of breast cancer research and screenings, in addition to other women’s health issues that infrequently take center stage.
Fans of the senator praise her persistence when it comes to women’s health, yet critics have raised questions about how supportive she is of transgender rights. The trans community points to her time as attorney general of California, when, for example, Harris denied gender affirmation surgery to transgender inmates.
Yet, during her time as a presidential candidate alongside Joe Biden, and now as his running mate, Harris has made sure that women’s health issues are at the forefront of her agenda. Here are a few key instances where she’s been an outspoken advocate.
1. Harris has stressed improved access to reproductive health care.
During a Democratic presidential debate last October, Harris chided the group for not focusing more on women’s access to reproductive health care.
“This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle,” she said during the debate. “And not nearly one word, with all of these discussions about health care, on women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today. And it’s outrageous.”
Last spring, Harris had co-sponsored a bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2019, to protect a woman’s ability to determine when to “bear a child or end a pregnancy, and to protect a health care provider’s ability to provide reproductive health care services.” The bill is meant to address how access to safe and legal abortion services has been hindered in the U.S.
Harris has also spoken out about the problem of untested rape kits, and proposed funding to erase the backlog. And as part of her “Children’s Agenda,” she had proposed a plan for working families that would allow up to six months paid family and medical leave.
2. She’s introduced legislation to address the maternal health crisis in the U.S.
Harris’ passion extends to other women’s health issues, too. As a senator, she has been outspoken about Black maternal health, and in 2018 introduced legislation aimed at reducing the number of Black women who die due to pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.
“Within the problem there is an issue of implicit bias,” she told TODAY last year. “The other part of it is understanding that in order for this to actually work, there has to be a community approach. It’s going to be about saying, lets go to the medical schools and encourage that there will be training about these issues, which are real issues. These are uncomfortable truths we’re speaking. Nobody wants to hear or even believe that this is happening, but it is, so let’s deal with it, let’s take it on.”
This year, she and 22 fellow senators reintroduced the resolution to designate a week in April as Black Maternal Health Week.
And the senator has been keeping a close eye on how the coronavirus pandemic has expounded those racial disparities in health care. This month, she and other senators introduced legislation designed to “confront the structural racism that drives disparities in maternal health” during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Our previous story expands on how the coronavirus could uniquely impact Black pregnant women.)
We don’t talk nearly enough about uterine fibroids, which affect millions of women across the US. So today, I’m introducing legislation to fund uterine fibroid research and education so women get the information and care they need. https://t.co/1F1Br5yALu
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) July 30, 2020
3. She’s brought focus to a little known health issue that impacts Black women.
Harris, who co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill, also recently introduced legislation that spotlights another issue that disproportionately affects Black women: uterine fibroids. In late July, she wrote on Twitter that the bill aims to fund crucial research and education about fibroids, which are noncancerous growths in the uterus that can cause excruciatingly painful periods and other health issues for women.
As the senator shifts her focus to a vice presidential run, Americans can expect to hear more from Harris about these issues as she campaigns alongside Biden this fall.