Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose…

Andrea Lynch

There's a fascinating piece on Radio Free Europe this week about how the number of pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths continues to climb worldwide. Kind of staggering, especially when you consider how easily preventable the vast majority of these deaths are. What's also staggering to contemplate is that the number of women who die in pregnancy or childbirth-around half a million women every year-hasn't changed in years. What's going on with the world's priorities? Are we really comfortable with that statistic? The Bush administration may be more than willing to take the credit for liberating women in Afghanistan, but who will take credit for the fact that today, 1 in 6 Afghani women is destined to die in childbirth (compared to 1 in 2,500 in the States, and one in 29,000 in Sweden)?

There's a fascinating piece on Radio Free Europe this week about how the number of pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths continues to climb worldwide. Kind of staggering, especially when you consider how easily preventable the vast majority of these deaths are. What's also staggering to contemplate is that the number of women who die in pregnancy or childbirth-around half a million women every year-hasn't changed in years. What's going on with the world's priorities? Are we really comfortable with that statistic? The Bush administration may be more than willing to take the credit for liberating women in Afghanistan, but who will take credit for the fact that today, 1 in 6 Afghani women is destined to die in childbirth (compared to 1 in 2,500 in the States, and one in 29,000 in Sweden)?

Preventing these deaths doesn't require fancy technology, and it doesn't require tons of money: what it does require is that the world put a higher premium on women's lives-which apparently is easier said than done.

For example, we could easily save the 68,000 women who die as a result of unsafe abortion every year (13% of total pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths worldwide) by lifting restrictive abortion laws, or just making abortion safe under the circumstances where it already is legal (like the Cairo Programme of Action, signed by 179 countries, suggests). Or, if we don't want to say the "A" word, we could always just throw our support behind agencies like UNFPA, provider of much-needed emergency obstetric care to women in 140 countries worldwide (yes, the same UNFPA that President Bush refuses to fund).

Or, if you're like Portugal (where abortion is illegal) and aren't inclined to worry too much about these issues, you could continue to throw doctors in jail instead. Nice job stopping Zidane's penalty, guys!

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Learn more from the Safe Motherhood Initiative.

Culture & Conversation Maternity and Birthing

Exploring Birth Justice: A Conversation With Julia Chinyere Oparah and Alicia Bonaparte

Kanya D’Almeida

Rewire delves into the emerging birth justice movement and some of the historic and contemporary examples of how Black women and women of color, as well as trans and gender nonconforming people, have fought to preserve pregnancy and childbirth as a safe and sacred experience.

The numbers surrounding maternal and child health are bleak: Black women are three times as likely to die giving birth as their white counterparts; infant mortality rates for Black children are three times higher than those of white kids; and despite a widely held belief that vaginal deliveries are the safest route for both mother and child, women of color represent the highest cesarean rates of any other demographic in the United States.

Behind these statistics, however, are powerful stories of grassroots childbirth activists and traditional birth workers of color, including midwives and doulas, coalescing for “birth justice.” Building on a long history in which Black women and women of color have resisted birth oppression through the centuries, the term birth justice was coined in an effort to foreground activism and justice for birthing parents in movements around reproductive justice and Black lives.

A newly released anthology titled Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy and Childbirth explores some of the key issues within the nascent movement, including efforts to end the criminalization of pregnant women of color and trans or gender-nonconforming people, advocacy that aims to expand access to traditional and indigenous birth workers, and struggles to resist medical violence. The anthology is a project of Black Women Birthing Justice, a collective dedicated to transforming birthing experiences for Black women.

Foregrounding the stories in this collection are historical analyses of medical violence and “medical apartheid,” which shaped the fields of obstetrics and gynecology in the United States, as well as a close look at the ways in which “a patriarchal medical establishment seeks to control women’s bodies.”

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In an interview with the book’s co-editors, Julia Chinyere Oparah, co-chair of ethnic studies and director of the Research Justice at the Intersections Scholars Program at Mills College, and Alicia Bonaparte, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, Rewire delved into some of the intersections between the emerging birth justice movement and the broader reproductive justice movement, and explored some of the historic and contemporary examples of how birthing parents have fought to preserve pregnancy and childbirth as a safe and sacred experience.

Rewire: Walk us through the current landscape of the birth justice movement.

Alicia Bonaparte: I consider this a movement that is designed to respect the rights of all individuals who aspire to become birthing parents and have a child in a supportive environment: one in which the birthing parent has autonomy over their body and the ability to choose the ways in which their birthing process flows, from the prenatal to the postpartum process.

Julia Chinyere Oparah: This is a movement led by Black women and women of color, so the focus is on dismantling inequalities around race, class, citizenship, sexual orientation, and all of the intersecting oppressions that lead to negative birth outcomes, particularly for women of color, trans folks, low-income communities, and immigrant women. We are working toward reclaiming a midwifery tradition that originates within communities of Black women and women of color, and making sure these communities have access to these alternative birthing practices, including doula services. We are trying to raise awareness and build grassroots power, so we focus on ways in which communities can come together, talk about the violence, coercion, and neglect that’s happening in medical contexts, and work together to improve birth inequalities. We look at disproportionate maternal and infant mortality as the very visible tip of the iceberg, but we also go further to examine issues that might not necessarily cause mortality but that lead to pain and lasting trauma.

Rewire: What are some of the synergies between the reproductive justice (RJ) movement and the birth justice (BJ) movement? Are there distinctions between the two?

JCO: The BJ movement is part of the broader movement to dismantle reproductive oppression. Both the RJ and BJ movements aim to decolonize our bodies, and both advocate for the right of every person to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. Many of us in the BJ movement are birth activists who come from the RJ movement, so there isn’t a huge difference in terms of our frameworks, which are really intersectional. The only real difference is that we try to center issues that sometimes get sidelined in the larger RJ movement, such as fighting the stereotyping of women who choose home births as selfish and irresponsible, or highlighting the disproportionate impact of VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section) bans on women of color. We foreground the right to choose when, where, how, and with whom to birth, and try to lift up experiences that have been somewhat invisible in reproductive justice organizing, such as the right to access traditional and indigenous birth workers.

AB: Another synergy is that both the RJ and the BJ movements aim to lift the voices of women of color and resist a narrative that is dominated by white middle- and upper-class women. Both movements also aim to push beyond the narrow boundaries of “choice” and instead use a lens of economic and racial justice. But the movements diverge slightly when it comes to policy. Birth activists are trying to raise legal and policy issues that would, for instance, force insurance companies to pay for midwife-assisted births. Nationally, midwifery services covering everything from prenatal to postpartum care run between $6,000 and $8,000. In comparison, hospital births can cost upwards of $15,000, depending on what interventions are deemed “necessary” for the birthing parent. So midwifery-assisted birth is actually cheaper than a hospital birth assisted by an OB-GYN, and yet policy fails to address this—so this is something the birth justice movement is fighting for.

Rewire: The book talks a lot about medical violence and medical apartheid. Can you explain these terms, in both historical and contemporary contexts?

JCO: Both terms refer to the ways in which the bodies of Black people, both alive and dead, have been made into sites of medical examination, to achieve medical advances that improve the health of white communities. It’s important to foreground Black women’s stories here: such as the story of Anarcha, an enslaved Black woman who was forced to endure a series of horrendously painful medical experiments at the hands of J. Marion Sims, a white physician who is often held up as the so-called father of modern gynecology for “pioneering” a technique to repair vaginal fistulas (a condition caused by traumatic or obstructed labor resulting in an opening between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum) by experimenting on Black women with fistulas. Scholars like Harriet Washington have documented the legacy of American obstetrics, in which the bodies of enslaved Black women have been used to further birth options for white women. She documents the work of Louisiana surgeon Francois Marie Prevost, who “introduced” the cesarean section in the 1820s. At the time, opening up a woman’s abdomen was considered a death sentence, yet this was exactly what was done to Black women in the name of advancing medical techniques.

AB: An example of contemporary medical apartheid might include the ways in which, for example, Black and Hispanic women receive disproportionately fewer screenings for potential birth complications like preeclampsia. The medical establishment is grounded in racism, classism, and inherent sexism, and so unfortunately these axes of oppression come to the fore in doctor-patient relationships. Involuntary c-sections are another example of medical violence in the way we see women of color experience far higher rates of c-sections than white women. In particular, women of color are coerced by OB-GYNs and nurses [who convince them] that they are acting in the best interest of the child, despite the fact that many of these c-sections are unnecessary and unwarranted. We see hospital workers like nurses resort to fear-mongering to create the narrative that you are not a good mother if you don’t subject yourself to the unnecessary interventions and processes that the medical establishment has chosen for you, and this also hits Black women and women of color hardest.

Rewire: Who are “birth revolutionaries,” and how are they reclaiming natural birthing traditions?

JCO: Two sections in the book, “Changing Lives, One Birth at a Time” and “Taking Back Our Power: Organizing for Birth Justice” really lift up the stories of birth workers and birth activists working to change the systems, policies, and spaces surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. The word “revolutionary” suggests that the movement is not only about reform and tinkering around the edges, so to speak. We are not looking to simply reduce disproportionate mortality rates; we are seeking a fundamental transformation of the conditions under which we become pregnant and give birth so these inequalities no longer exist. One example I can point to is Tina Reynolds and the Women on the Rise Telling HerStory initiative, an advocacy organization comprised of current and formerly incarcerated women resisting the brutality of the prison system, such as the shackling of women during labor.

AB: I co-authored a chapter in the book with a Black birth revolutionary named Jennie Joseph who works to change deleterious birth outcomes for women. She has worked specifically in the three counties in Florida that have the worst maternal and infant health outcomes for women of color and has created a program called the JJ Way, which unites volunteer community health workers with birthing parents in underrepresented and underserved neighborhoods to improve overall health outcomes. Such efforts amplify birth advocacy and activism for the benefit of the entire community, and I would argue that this is revolutionary.

Rewire: The book discusses the “commercialization” and “co-optation” of traditional birthing practices. Can you tell us what this means?

AB: If you have a global perspective on childbirth, you will notice that midwife-assisted births are the most common form of delivery worldwide. Here in the United States, however, midwifery has long been denigrated by the white medical establishment, and associated with superstition and other “non-scientific” practices. Birth workers have fought against this quality versus quantity approach, which frames hospital births and all their attendant interventions as being the better option. This is largely the result of living in a highly consumer-driven society.

JCO: The other side of the coin is that natural birth and midwifery activists have achieved greater acceptance of these practices, but this has not opened the door to women of color because the system is premised on the ability to pay. A typical response within a highly commercialized and consumerized society is that the establishment will recognize certain demands, but only for those who are able or willing to pay. Coming at this from an economic justice lens, we see this as exclusionary, since many Black women and women of color do not have the means to “purchase” their preferred birthing process. This is where we return to what civil rights activist Ella Baker called “legalism”—the idea that laws alone will not build participatory democracy. She believed that change would not come only from individuals speaking to power in the language that power understands, and advocated for the mass mobilization of collective power. In the same way we see arguments for the legalization of midwifery, which stops short of calling for it to be accessible.

Rewire: What would you say are some of the most important messages in the book?

JCO: One of the messages I’d like to lift up is that this is an urgent movement about saving our lives. I consider birth justice part of the broader Black Lives Matter movement, especially the SayHerName campaign, which has really worked to center women’s voices and stories. In the same way, this book highlights how Black women are reclaiming birth as a powerful and beautiful experience, despite all the forces of birth oppression. Many stories in the anthology uphold moments of what I would call “autonomy,” where Black women and women of color have created completely separate spaces and moments of full empowerment. This is a message of hope in the now—we are not only struggling for a future birth experience but celebrating the birth revolutionaries who are decolonizing the birth experience in the present moment too.

AB: One thing I think the book highlights that is missing in conversations about reproductive justice is the shame associated with miscarriage. I think there has been a lot of internalization of the idea that women are machines who exist solely for the purpose of producing children—and when we are unable to do so it means we are defective in some way. It’s extremely important to interrupt this narrative with one that centers the autonomy of women and birthing parents, and fights the notion of miscarriage as something shameful. We have a chapter in the book by Viviane Saleh-Hanna, a professor at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, “On Natural Birth and Miscarriage,” which really speaks to this important message.

And finally, one of the things that I find incredibly powerful about the anthology is that we historicize the cultural traditions of Granny Midwives, older Black women who have functioned within Black communities not only as birth caretakers but also health workers for the entire community. So we start there, and end the book by looking at ways in which activists are reclaiming these traditions, and reclaiming the birth space as something sacred, which I see as a really hopeful message.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Commentary Politics

Four Facts Nancy Pelosi—and All ‘Pro-Choice’ Democrats—Should Know About Abortion

Jodi Jacobson

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could not articulate a vigorous, unapologetic, and evidence-based response on abortion to questions posed in an interview this week by Roll Call's Melinda Henneberger.

Just a week or so after Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) blamed voters for being “complacent” about abortion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi illustrated why, despite being the nominally pro-choice party, Democrats continuously fail to lead on the issue of reproductive health care.

Pelosi could not articulate a vigorous, unapologetic, and evidence-based response on abortion to questions posed in an interview this week by Roll Call‘s Melinda Henneberger. In fact, Pelosi expressed discomfort with using the word “abortion,” underscoring how deeply abortion stigma has permeated the discourse of even the female leader of the Democratic Party, one of the most powerful women in the United States.

It is more than clear that abortion will continue to be politicized through the 2016 election and beyond. But Democrats persist in stumbling when asked about it. So here are some facts that any politician claiming to be pro-choice—and otherwise charged with protecting the interests, rights, and health of the voters who put them in office—must master and assert without apology.

Access to safe abortion care is fundamentally a matter of public health. In countries where access to abortion is limited either by law or in practice, women face high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. In other words, they die and are injured, sometimes permanently, at far higher rates than in countries or regions where access to safe abortion care is guaranteed. This was indeed the case in the United States before Roe v. Wade.

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Today, according to conservative estimates, more than 300,000 women worldwide die each year from complications from pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion. That’s 830 women each and every day. These are women in their teens to their late 40s, who are most likely to be raising children and earning critical income for their families. Many times the number who die from unsafe abortion suffer long-term illness and disability instead.

In Uganda, for example, due to lack of access to contraception among other factors, more than four in ten births are unplanned, and women say they have far larger families than they want. In their struggle to have fewer children, they often resort to abortion. Abortion is, however, illegal in Uganda, and access to safe abortion is only available to the wealthy. Not surprisingly, Uganda has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal death, and estimates indicate that if rates of clandestine abortion continue, half of all women in Uganda will need treatment for complications of unsafe abortion at some point in their lives.

By contrast, as was the case for the United States, rates of maternal deaths and illnesses from unsafe abortion declined dramatically in both Nepal and in South Africa after those two countries legalized and increased access to abortion care.

The deaths of women should be reason enough to address the need for safe abortion, but families also suffer. When a mother dies, her children, especially those under 5, are more likely to suffer malnutrition, neglect, and death. As I first wrote more than 25 years ago, history has long shown that politically or religiously motivated laws will never eliminate abortion; they only make it more costly in terms of women’s health, and the health and well-being of their families. The fact of abortion as a public health issue should be the first talking point in any informed conversation led by pro-choice politicians.

Abortion is a matter of fundamental human rights. Every person on earth has the right to determine whether or not to become a parent, and when and with whom to have a child, although clearly too many people are as yet unable to exercise these rights.

Furthermore, the international community has long recognized the broader fundamental human rights of women. According to the 1993 Vienna Declaration on Human Rights:

The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.

Choice in childbearing, childbirth, and parenting are fundamental to women’s ability to make decisions about their participation in society, on their own terms. Women, however, cannot exercise these fundamental human rights without unfettered access to contraception and abortion. Yet too many governments, politicians, and religious leaders appear willing to abrogate access to these basic health interventions, ironically on the basis of a “pro-life” agenda—albeit one that ignores the value of women’s lives. Any politician who calls themselves pro-choice should understand the need to protect and promote the human rights of living, breathing women, and be able to articulate them.

Abortion is a fundamental economic issue. Access to both contraception and abortion play a major role in women’s economic lives. There have been innumerable academic studies carried out and policy papers written over the past several decades about the connections between access to abortion and women’s economic status throughout the world, and all of them come to the same conclusions: The ability to control reproduction is essential to women’s abilities to support themselves and their families, and is essential to long-term economic growth.

Having a child or children is a major lifetime economic investment for anyone; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that it now costs more than $245,000 to raise a child in this country, not including the costs of college tuition. A study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that child care alone outpaces the cost of rent in 500 of 618 municipalities examined. Given these and other considerations, such as low wages and the cost of health insurance, transportation, food, clothing, and other necessities, unintended pregnancy can throw a family into economic crisis. Studies show that most women seeking abortion are already struggling financially, cannot afford an additional child, or want to continue their education to create a better future for themselves and their families.

The Turnaway Study, a multi-faceted research project on abortion conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program, examined the relationship between abortion, reproductive control, and poverty, among other things. As noted in a policy brief by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project about the economics of abortion and women’s lives, the Turnaway Study found that women denied an abortion in the United States had three times greater odds of ending up below the federal poverty line two years later than did women in similar economic circumstances who were able to obtain an abortion, adjusting for any previous differences between the two groups.

Smaller family size and educational attainment are among two of the most critical factors in the economic success of families and communities. Women and their partners know what it means to bring a child into the world and what it takes to raise children, and only they are equipped to make decisions about whether they have the financial and emotional means to make that commitment. Access to abortion is therefore fundamentally about personal and family economics. Abortion is about what women want for their future, and the future of any children now and later.

Access to abortion also has wider social and economic implications. According to the World Health Organization’sSafe abortion care: the public health and human rights rationale:”

Safe abortion is cost saving. The cost to health systems of treating the complications of unsafe abortion is overwhelming, especially in poor countries. The overall average cost per case that governments incur is estimated (in 2006 US dollars) at US$ 114 for Africa and US$ 130 for Latin America. The economic costs of unsafe abortion to a country’s health system, however, go beyond the direct costs of providing post-abortion services. A recent study estimated an annual cost of US$ 23 million for treating minor complications from unsafe abortion at the primary health-care level; US$ 6 billion for treating post-abortion infertility; and US$ 200 million each year for the out-of-pocket expenses of individuals and households in sub-Saharan Africa for the treatment of post-abortion complications. In addition, US$ 930 million is the estimated annual expenditure by individuals and their societies for lost income from death or long-term disability due to chronic health consequences of unsafe abortion.

Unintended pregnancies also have other cost implications. Researchers at the Brookings Institute found that the United States spends $12 billion each year to cover medical care for women who experience unintended pregnancies and on infants who were conceived unintentionally.

In short, it is a fact that providing people with the means needed to make choices in childbearing is economically beneficial at all levels of society. In a country otherwise obsessed with individual economic choices, this should be a clear argument.

Abortion is an individual health issue. Yes, abortion is an individual health issue, related to but separate from its broader role in public health. Anyone who has had—or knows someone who has had—a difficult pregnancy, a miscarriage, an emergency c-section, a stillbirth, or any number of other complications is aware, pregnancy and childbirth can be wonderful and can be life-threatening, and the reality of either is a roll of the dice.

There are any number of contraindications for pregnancy that would result in the need for an abortion and any number of complications that can arise during a pregnancy, threatening the life or health of the pregnant person, the fetus, or both. The potential for very serious complications rises later in pregnancy, or after 20 weeks, the magic number alighted on by anti-choice zealots as somehow being a rational point after which abortion should be banned.

Any number of complications compromising the health of a pregnant person can occur, or fetal anomalies can be found, at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy, potentially causing even the most wanted pregnancy to go awry. Henneberger, now editor in chief at Roll Call, has frequently advocated for 20-week abortion bans, either not understanding or not caring that such a ban would dramatically limit access to medical care for untold numbers of women who face complications. Pelosi should have been able to more forcefully tell her why this is dangerous.

The United States is sliding backward on many fronts, including on access to contraception and abortion, two public health interventions for which the cost-benefit analyses are clear.

Politicians who claim to be pro-choice and raise money from citizens who support public health, human rights, and choice in childbearing must be able to articulate, embrace, and defend their positions. For too long, Democrats have come across as inept and apologetic when talking about abortion, even though the facts are clear and indisputable.

It’s time for this to stop.

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