This originally appeared on Alternet.org. Republished here with permission.
Criminalization of pregnancy and unpaid maternity leave are some of the obstacles mothers face in the U.S.
It’s ironic that while women are constantly bombarded with attacks on abortion rights, our society and economic system provide virtually no support for women when they decide to have children. With the popularity of the mommy blogs and celebrity moms, it would appear that motherhood is finally getting some of the respect that it deserves, but the reality is that the average American woman faces policies, practices, attitudes, and health barriers that make motherhood incredibly difficult.
High Maternal Mortality Rate
Though the United States is a first-world country, we continue to have unreasonably high maternal mortality rates. According to a new study conducted by the University of Washington published by the medical journal The Lancet, maternal deaths related to childbirth in the U.S. are nearly at the highest rate in a quarter century. The United States is one of just eight countries to see a rise in maternal mortality over the past decade. The report has found that a woman giving birth in the U.S. is now more likely to die than a woman giving birth in China. While many countries in the developing world have lowered their rates, U.S. rates have increased so much that it now ranks 60 for maternal deaths on a list of 180 countries, which is a dramatic shift from its rank of 22 in 1990.
While the Affordable Care Act may help reduce these numbers by providing more women with affordable prenatal care, many undocumented mothers will continue to be uninsured. Not only that, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, in states that do not expand Medicaid, almost five million low-income uninsured adults have incomes above Medicaid eligibility levels, but below poverty, which puts them in a “coverage gap” of earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for Marketplace premium tax credits. As a result, many poor women will not get the healthcare they need during their pregnancy.
Unpaid Maternity and Paternity Leave
The United States is one of only four countries in the world, and the only high-income country, that does not have a statutory right to paid maternity leave for employees. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, most of the “100 Best Companies” provide paid maternity leave, and many provide paid leave for adoption or paternity leave, but only a small number provide pay during the full 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA only entitles “eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.” The FMLA 2012 Survey also found that a third (35 percent) of employees work for an employer that offers paid maternity leave. Lower paid workers are, of course, least likely to have access to paid leave.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), paid leave is guaranteed for working moms in at least 178 countries around the world. The United States, however, received a failing grade when it comes to providing women support when they enter motherhood. A study done by McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy found Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia, Lesotho, and the United States, are some of the only countries in the world that provide no type of financial support for mothers during. In one of the most powerful countries in the world, many women are faced with economic hardships if they choose to have children.
While some countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Spain offer several weeks of paid paternity leave, the United States offers none. Many fathers are forced to use a combination of vacation or sick days or unpaid leave to spend time with their newborn children. According to a 2013 study, fathers who took two or more weeks of leave are more likely to be involved in the direct care of their children throughout their lives, but many are unable to for financial reasons. The lack of paid paternity leave not only burdens mothers with the brunt of childrearing, it also disregards gay men who chose to have children.
Many health professionals recommend breastfeeding for many reasons. Breast milk is easier to digest, rich in nutrients, and full of antibodies, cells, and hormones that protect babies from illness. One of the other benefits of the Affordable Care Act is that women now have access to breastfeeding support, supplies and lactation counseling under preventive services. A provision requires employers to provide reasonable break time for employees to express breast milk for one year after their child’s birth each time employees have the need. Unfortunately, the provision only applies to companies who employ 50 workers or more, and only protects hourly workers, not salaried ones. It’s also difficult to enforce the law since the provision doesn’t include a penalty for businesses that don’t comply. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigates complaints under the ACA, and since the law took effect, it has concluded 169 investigations related to the nursing mothers provision and has found 71 violations.
Breasts are everywhere—TV, movies, and advertising—yet many people become offended when they see a breast in a baby’s mouth. Though 40 states have laws that allow women to breastfeed in both public and private locations, breastfeeding mothers continue to face discrimination. Just last month, a California woman was kicked out of LA Fitness for breastfeeding her son in the locker room. In 2012, a woman was even thrown out of her own church and called a stripper for feeding her baby. And these are only a few examples. Women need to be allowed to nourish their children whenever and wherever they see fit.
Criminalization of Pregnancy
On April 29th, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill that will allow criminal charges against women who struggle with drug addiction during their pregnancy. Mothers could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of using illegal drugs. Though proponents of the bill claim it’s intended for the safety of women and children, many medical and reproductive rights experts warn that this kind of legislation would be detrimental to women. The American College of Medicine and Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for instance, stated, “Although legal action against women who abuse drugs prenatally is taken with the intent to produce healthy birth outcomes, negative results are frequently cited.” The organization believes that women seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not be subjected to criminal or civil penalties.
Not only would it discourage women from seeking prenatal care and treatment for drug abuse, it would separate them from their children, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty by giving these women criminal records, which would bar them from many kinds of employment. Women struggling with addiction need support, not incarceration. These kinds of laws are simply tactics to further police women, particularly poor women and women of color, and disregard the root of drug addiction. If this issue goes unchecked, the bill can set a bad precedent. Alabama has already passed similar legislation and it’s only a matter a time before other states follow suit.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago.