Reproductive health is primary: Alumna advocates for women’s health

Emily Kane-Lee found the perfect marriage of her Communications and Women’s Studies double majors: she communicates about women.

Specifically, she talks about their reproductive health.

Kane-Lee is the Director of Education and Communications for the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals in Washington, D.C. She is responsible for not only sharing the message of the ARHP through newsletters, social media, and other avenues, but also creating materials that educate health care professionals about women’s sexual and reproductive health.

Her goal, and the goal of the ARHP, is to educate health care professionals about women’s sexual and reproductive health to the point where it’s included in primary care.

“You’re a whole person. When you go in because you have the flu, you’re not just a uterus going in to get some antibiotics,” Kane-Lee said. “We’re looking at how primary care is practiced in this country, and we’re trying to integrate sexual and reproductive health into that primary care. It shouldn’t be so marginalized and segregated in our health care system.”

Alumna Emily Kane-Lee advocates for women's reproductive health through the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals.

Alumna Emily Kane-Lee advocates for women’s reproductive health through the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals.

This job is only the latest role in which Kane-Lee has been an advocate for women. During her time at UWM, she helped to found Vox, or Voices for Planned Parenthood, on campus. She graduated in 2003 and joined the Peace Corps for a stint in Kenya where she taught HIV prevention in a rural high school and helped young women navigate life growing up in a male-dominated society where girls and women are often marginalized and oppressed because of their gender.

After her stint, Kane-Lee returned to the U.S. and settled in D.C. She earned a Master’s degree in communications from Johns Hopkins University and held a series of posts advocating for women and LGBT community members before finding herself at ARHP. She also sits on the board of the Reproductive Health Access Project, which is aimed at integrating sexual and reproductive health into primary care.

“My work has straddled two different departments: education and communications. I love wearing those two hats, because they’re different day-to-day, but they intersect in really interesting ways,” Kane-Lee said. “My current job is running professional continuing education for physicians, residents, nurses, and pharmacists and making sure they know how to take care of their patients. Then the communications arm is getting the word out about what they’re doing.”

That can be a challenge simply because they’re doing so much. Members of ARHP are encouraging health care providers to think about everything with one eye toward reproductive health. If a woman is seeking treatment for a migraine, for example, her doctor should know how her headaches may be tied to her menstrual cycle. A woman with epilepsy should be counseled about her birth control options, since anti-seizure medication can interfere with some forms of contraception and may have a negative impact on fetuses during pregnancy.

Too often, Kane-Lee said, health care providers don’t think about how a treatment for one condition can affect a woman’s reproductive health.

“We want providers to see women as not just a disease state, but a whole person, taking into account their life experiences and what else is going on with them,” she said.

One of Kane-Lee’s current projects is to create marketing materials dealing with the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that can cause birth defects.

“Zika prevention isn’t just about wearing DEET and eliminating standing water; it’s also about ensuring that women have options and access to contraception and abortion care,” Kane-Lee said. “Half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, and it’s really important to remember that, that if we’re trying to prevent Zika consequences, we need to underscore women’s ability to prevent pregnancy if they want to.”

It’s hard, and at times, frustrating work. There is always a battle for funding and the list of projects to tackle grows steadily. Even so, Kane-Lee loves her job.

“As a kid, I was always a feminist, and raised that way,” she said. “I can’t believe that I ended up working in a field I’m so passionate about.”

– Sarah Vickery