I was 38 years old when I had my first and only child – a daughter. She is the light of my life and I am thankful for her everyday (well…there may have been one or two when she really tried my patience). But my life did not begin when I had her, nor did the complexity of my life dissolve when she was born, turning me into a "MOTHER" in large, bold type, with "lawyer, president of a non-profit organization, friend, foodie, author" as tiny footnotes after. I'm still all of those things.
Here in the United States, we have the opportunity to be many things in addition to being mothers. A big debate rages as to whether the growing number of women who are financially able to opt out of their careers to raise their children are somehow making a very bad decision.
Such debates are a luxury of affluent societies (and, frankly, of the most affluent among us). In many countries in the world, women are wife, mother. Period. No option, no choice, virtually no way to change that.
In this society, where women still make less than men, we are nevertheless considered important to society for our contributions to the workforce, the political process and the family. Because childbirth is so safe here that we have forgotten how dangerous it actually is, we can debate the accessibility of health care for low-income women, insurance coverage of contraceptives, the amount of time it takes to get an appointment for a mammogram and whether mandatory vaccination against the HPV virus is ethical.
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In other parts of the world, it's not out of the question for a man to decide that it's easier and cheaper to get a new wife than to save the one who's hemorrhaging. The chances of living though childbirth is fundamental to the health and rights of women.
In the most extreme example, if men in a seriously male dominated society can't rally to save the women who bring their sons into the world, you can bet regular health care is a low priority. And if women don't even rate high enough to receive basic health care, what motivation does the society have to provide girls with education?
Motherhood is not fundamental to women. It's not crucial that every woman has children. But even childless women have a stake in childbirth being safe because it's such a strong indicator of the value a society places on women.
Of all the things that separate the sexes, pregnancy and childbirth is immutably, unquestionably an experience only women can have. No matter how supportive a man is, or even how helpful during the delivery, at the end of it all it was a woman who nurtured the baby and a woman who brought it into the world. As Shakespeare said, "we are all of woman born."
A pure emotional argument to care for safe deliveries is that we have a responsibility to honor our mothers – the humans who nurtured us into life. The practical argument is that it is simply not possible for nations to fully develop economically without the participation of half of their citizens.
In any event, when a woman dies in this country during childbirth, it’s as shocking as it is tragic. In this country, our debates about pregnancy and motherhood often involve opinions about epidurals, water births, and breastfeeding — but almost never about mortality. Because we have that luxury not to realize that childbirth is a human rights issue.