by Vanessa Hunsberger
I’m thinking of a country. A country where pharmacists can refuse to give women their prescribed birth control because of their personal beliefs. Where women may have to drive two and a half hours to reach the nearest abortion provider. Where doctors must relay medically inaccurate information to patients and, tragically, where three times as many women died in childbirth as the official target figure.
I’m not talking about a country that has recently emerged from civil war or one that depends on foreign aid to meet the needs of its people. I’m not referring to a country where church and state officially function as one. I am instead referring to our own country, the United States.
American women are experiencing a decline in the standard of medical care available to them as well as greatly restricted access to the optimum spectrum of reproductive health services. In Arizona, for instance, after a woman has decided to undergo an abortion, she must be given a physical description of her fetus and receive information about the public assistance available to her if she chooses to carry her child to term. In an unconstitutional move, states like Idaho have put in place laws that prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. In Mississippi and other states, pharmacists may refuse to dispense emergency contraception if they are personally against using it. These alarming laws that infringe upon women’s rights and endanger their health are unfortunately growing in number as groups with conservative religious agendas seek to impose their views on all women.
Women’s reproductive health needs are best met through informed discussion and decision-making between women and their medical providers and not through medically unsound laws designed solely to reduce women’s access to reproductive healthcare.
While advocates of women’s reproductive health spend their energy fighting the many bills that would further trample on women’s health rights, 12.7 maternal deaths from pregnancy-related causes occur per 100,000 live births. Maternal deaths include those women who, even months after their pregnancy ends, succumb to medical conditions such as hemorrhage and eclampsia or complications like those that can result from anesthesia and caesarean sections. We unfortunately understand that some women will inevitably be lost in childbirth. However, the quality of medicine today allows us to prevent many maternal deaths. The advanced nature of American medicine makes the worsening of the country’s maternal mortality ratio particularly jarring. Maternal deaths increased because of issues such as low rates of prenatal care (due to expense and lack of health insurance) and an over-reliance on medically unnecessary caesarean sections. In 2006, the US ranked behind 49 other countries with lower ratios of maternal mortality. This means that our maternal mortality ratio looks like those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine while nations such as Greece, Ireland and Denmark boast maternal mortality ratios about five times lower than the United States.
Discussion on women’s reproductive health seems to inevitably return to valuing life. Yet, while our legislators try to convince us that showing ultrasound images to women who want abortions actually protects them and boast about the unbeatable quality of the American healthcare system, an unacceptable number of families are losing their mothers. The joy of bringing a child into the world becomes a family’s biggest tragedy.
Maternal mortality and reproductive healthcare are inextricably tied. A country that values women listens to their needs. Given that 99 percent of women who have had sex have used a form of contraception other than natural family planning, it is clear that American women want to protect their access to contraception. Despite this figure, in 2010, almost half of all pregnancies were unintended. Education about and access to contraception are clearly lacking. Only women in control of their bodies and informed about their options can decide what is best for them. A country that values women provides them with access to the medical care they need. However, the United States does not promote women’s reproductive education or prioritize their survival in childbirth: our maternal mortality ratio is shockingly high and African American women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. A country that respects women will invest its resources in ensuring that avoidable maternal deaths, especially of poor women and women of color, do not occur. That is how you value life and the reproductive health of women.
Vanessa Hunsberger is a summer intern with Legal Voice and a rising 3L at the University of Washington School of Law. She is an avid traveler, having spent over 20 years in West Africa, Southeast Asia, China and Russia.
Photo by Ominate.