This past Wednesday, March 8, was International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the various achievements of women culturally, economically, politically and socially. It just seems so ironic to me that we celebrate this day in the United States, yet when push comes to shove, how much do we actually care about women?
Do you ever look at our maternal mortality statistics in the U.S.? Probably not unless you’re a Health: Science, Society and Policy (HSSP) major or just are looking for a reason to be sad, but the numbers are actually pretty terrifying. Now albeit the numbers aren’t as bad as they used to be. However, if the counter to the question of “why are so many women dying during childbirth in the U.S?” is “well, it’s not as bad as it used to be” that’s completely bizarre. Now, if you go and look at the breakdown of those deaths you’ll see how many of them were preventable: a staggering amount.
So here are the numbers for you. Upwards of 700 women die from complications related to childbirth every year in the U.S. Now you may think, that’s not that many. For some perspective, the average airplane carries 138 passengers. So that’s about five planes crashing and killing all passengers per year. Now of these 700 deaths, two-thirds are preventable. That’s right around 466 women. That is the equivalent of four out of five pregnancy-related deaths being preventable. All these statistics are coming from the Center for Disease Control, which all but outlines on its page for maternal mortality “we know this is a problem but we’re working on it”—a very reassuring message for birthing individuals. Now let’s also keep in mind that these statistics do not include the countless women who suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), who then may die from the lasting effects of childbirth.
Of these 700 women American Indian, Alaska Native and Black women are two to three times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related complications than white women. The disparities are alarming and are fueled by unfounded ideas that women of different races have higher tolerances for pain. Kira Johnson, a Black mother, lost her life after a routine C-section at Cedars Sinai Hospital. She and her husband both spoke with nurses and doctors after the delivery saying something was wrong. Johnson had given birth before and recognized that something felt off about her body. Medical professionals didn’t listen. Instead, they let Johnson bleed internally for 10 hours and by the time they did take her to the Operating Room, it was too late. Johnson left behind a newborn and a toddler in what was a preventable death.
Johnson’s story is just one of many that takes a beautiful thing like childbirth and turns it into an absolute nightmare.
But it goes beyond the physical birth setting. Looking at women who miscarry, the laws around working and requesting time off after miscarrying or having a stillbirth are difficult to navigate. Now imagine you’re recovering both physically and mentally after having gone through that and on top of it you’re trying to not lose your job. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does allow women 12 weeks of unpaid leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth, but it actually is not applicable in most instances of miscarriage. In fact, most websites suggest that you use your vacation days first before trying to use the FMLA-provided days. I then quote, mothers are encouraged “to obtain outside legal advice about leave laws if you are concerned about how your employer will react.”
The U.S. does have a bereavement policy where individuals can get paid time off after a death in the family. However, this does not extend to miscarriages or stillbirths. There is also at this point in time no specific miscarriage leave, though there was a bill introduced to the Senate in 2019 called the Parental Bereavement Act which would add pregnancy loss to paid family leave. Shockingly, it did not pass.
So yes, let’s celebrate women when we know that somewhere out there in our country today there is a woman commuting to work who was pregnant and now no longer is and has no baby to hold. She is grieving and she is hurting but she is still going about her day because what other option does she really have? Because at the end of the day, how accessible is the FMLA? Does it just put you at risk of being fired by your employer, or worse being put in a situation where you have to talk about the trauma you are living through and haven’t fully processed yet?
Our laws don’t care about women, heck while we are at it why don’t we talk about bodily autonomy of women in the U.S. In case you missed it, Roe v. Wade got overturned by the Supreme Court, taking away someone’s right to the protection of privacy over their choice to continue a pregnancy. This stripped women across the country of access to safe and legal abortions in some states.
Now, want to know what is even more bizarre about this ruling? If a birthing individual has complications during their pregnancy and a medical abortion is recommended by a physician to save the life of the person carrying the child, some states will not perform the abortion anymore because legally they are not allowed to. So for instance if the child is non-viable—meaning they will not live when they are born—and they are a risk to the mother’s life if they carry the child to term, those women are no longer allowed to abort the child in that state. They would instead have to travel to another state or risk dying. To make it even better, there are people who will stand outside of abortion clinics and shame individuals seeking care. Imagine being a mother who doesn’t want to abort her child but is being told it’s either abort or die. What do you do? Can you seriously fault her?
But this is the country we live in.
We shame women for making the choices they make.
We shame women for having abortions. We shame women for having kids too young. We shame women for wearing dresses that are too short. We shame women for covering their hair. We shame women no matter what they do and we just take it.
We let women die and say nothing. We let women hurt and say nothing. We let women have their rights stripped and say nothing. Or no. No, we do say something. We march for our rights, we speak out for our freedoms but no one listens.
But hey, we have International Women’s Day, so everything is alright. Right?