A Mother’s Right to Life
Parents and medical professionals respond to an essay on America’s rising maternal mortality rate and the competing interests of mothers and doctors during childbirth.
By Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak
Ms. Harris and Ms. Tarchak are senior editorial assistants.
Dec. 3, 2018
Why are American mothers dying in childbirth at higher rates than in other developed countries? And who is to blame? Kim Brooks raised these questions in her Opinion essay “America Is Blaming Pregnant Women for Their Own Deaths.” More than 900 readers responded with comments on the article, including parents who shared their own harrowing birth stories and who often said they felt their lives were devalued, in favor of their child’s, by their doctors during the delivery process.
Medical professionals responded with accounts of systemic problems within the health care industry, such as the lack of emergency protocols in hospitals that would protect the life of the mother. Kayla Tab, a nurse in San Francisco, commented on the difficulties of weighing which life to prioritize in the case of an emergency: “In health care, we may make it seem like it’s all about the baby, but that’s often times because the fear of a stillbirth weighs so heavily on us. We feel caught in the middle.”
For one commenter and his wife, the decision was clear cut. “We went into it, no questions asked, mother’s life,” he wrote. “As tragic as a child’s loss is, without the mother, the child doesn't happen.”
Read more comments below from our readers. They have been edited for clarity and length.
‘Anything a woman desires for herself … is considered selfish’
This is not just a problem of hospitals, doctors and public policy, but also of social demands. Anything a woman desires for herself — autonomy, respect, physical wholeness — is considered selfish. Get a group of new mothers together and eventually they will start to tell their birth stories — the joys, horrors, indignities, pain and subtle, or not so subtle, misogyny. And in the midst of this “safe space” it never takes long before one woman will say, “You have a healthy baby, that’s all that matters.”
This can only happen in a society in which women are constantly devalued. It’s not a zero sum game: healthy baby or healthy mother; we can have both. — Corey Anderson, Atlanta
‘Not all women want the same thing’
There are many sides to making sure women are heard. Choice over our bodies also includes the right to a “medicalized” birth, if that is our preference. Medical interventions save lives, and many women, myself included, prefer that their doctors err on the side of the baby’s life.
Go on any pregnancy message board and you will find that there are tons of expectant mothers who put the “birth experience” before the health of their baby and who consider medical actions taken to save their child’s life as some kind of affront to that experience. — A F, Connecticut
Read the original essayOpinion | Kim BrooksAmerica Is Blaming Pregnant Women for Their Own DeathsNov. 16, 2018
‘I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the new generation of doctors’
We welcomed our first child this spring. The process left much to be desired. I feel if I hadn’t been there to speak up for my wife, it could have gone awfully different. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the new generation of doctors. In our encounters, they seemed entitled and even forceful, taking steps without checking with the mother and pressing unneeded procedures. I had to assert myself into the situation more than once to have my wife’s concerns heard. — WI Transplant, Madison, Wis.
‘There are bad doctors just like there are bad plumbers’
I am an obstetrician and this is an exceedingly important topic, one that many people are passionately devoting their lives to correcting. I believe that the system we work in is flawed from top to bottom, in ways that create serious gaps for low-income and low-resource patients. But I fear the author is doing a disservice to this topic by equating these particular terrifying outcomes with poor care by doctors. These anecdotes don’t highlight this crisis particularly well and only fan the flames of the anti-medicine, anti-doctor rhetoric that gets in the way of caring for people. There are bad doctors just like there are bad plumbers, but it’s the system that is failing people, not the individuals. — MMS, Cambridge, Mass.
‘I have my living child because of, not in spite of, medical science’
As a mother who recently gave birth, I am of two minds about this issue. Having seen many women of my generation flippantly reject medical care to give birth in their living rooms with midwives with little training, and others who feel guilt for years for having succumbed to C-sections, having “failed” at the ideal, natural birth, I wish that we could get over the medical-establishment-as-villain narrative. I’ve had seven pregnancies and have one living child. I have my living child because of, not in spite of, medical science. — Amv, New York
‘My wife would have died if she’d determined her own care path’
The idea that women know what’s best in some natural way is wrongheaded. My wife would have died if she’d made the now routine choice to determine her own care path and have the baby at home. This feels akin to the vaccine craze, something that’s been safe for so long but now people don’t feel the danger associated with deviating from the well-worn path. — John McDavid, Nevada
‘Women die from a lack of high-tech interventions’
Women don’t need more doulas, midwives or listening to, although all of those things can be beneficial. The two greatest threats to women’s health in and after childbirth are a doctor’s low index of suspicion of symptoms that could indicate underlying injuries and a reluctance — or inability — to deploy high-tech interventions in a timely fashion. That’s why California has had success in reducing maternal mortality. They’ve gone back to basics, recognizing that childbirth has always been, in every time, place and culture, one of the leading causes of death of women and that only technology used liberally can reduce that death rate. — Amy Tuteur, M.D., Boston
‘All of this is isolating’
Women are routinely not listened to or believed, especially black women, whose maternal mortality rates are 3.5 times higher than white women, as the author points out. Postpartum anxiety and depression, traumatic birth injuries, an abysmal lack of paid parental leave, judgment from family members, all of this is isolating, as well as physically and mentally debilitating. — New Mama, Massachusetts
Pointing out poor prenatal care is not blaming the victim
I am a physician and I have no doubt that the problems with obstetric care described are real and in need of correction. However, conditions for an optimal outcome for mother and baby start much earlier in pregnancy, if not before. Many women, particularly those who are poor or in a minority, have other adverse factors like poor nutrition, teen pregnancy and substance abuse, to name a few. Pointing this out is not “blaming the victim,” but rather showing the need for a vigorous public health response and universal access to family planning and prenatal care. — Hoarbear, Pittsburgh
‘Until all women can access high-quality medical care, nothing will change’
This story says nothing about one of the most obvious reasons why maternal mortality continues to rise in the U.S.A. but not in other developed countries: health insurance. The availability, or not, of high-quality prenatal, obstetric and postpartum care correlates directly with the mother’s financial resources. Until all women can access high-quality medical care, nothing will change. — Nikki, Islandia
‘It’s downright dangerous, even fatal, to be a woman right now’
It infuriates me that women in this country are denied birth control and autonomy over their own bodies by law when it comes to taking steps to prevent or terminate a pregnancy that took joint efforts with a man to create; seen as mere incubators and a secondary concern to a fetus once they are pregnant; and dismissed as mere statistics when they die in childbirth after a full-term pregnancy.
Spare me the “it’s a scary time for young men in America” nonsense that’s being parroted by the obtuse and ignorant misogynists, like Trump. If it’s scary to be a man right now, then it’s downright dangerous, even fatal, to be a woman. —