If women stopped conceiving, birthing, and raising children, the human race would die out. And just in case you think that’s a good idea, consider that long before the end, countries would age and wither and old people would have no one to talk to but cats and robots, as in Japan. You would think sensible societies would make everything connected with reproduction rewarding and safe for women. But no, when it comes to childbearing around the world, there’s way more stick than carrot. Consider:
In Argentina, as in the United States, most women who have abortions are low-income mothers trying to do right by the kids they already have. Despite a huge grassroots feminist movement, a vigorous campaign, and victory in the Chamber of Deputies, the Argentine Senate (42 men and 30 women) voted 37-31 in July against legalizing abortion, currently a crime except for rape and to save the woman’s life. There are over 354,000 illegal abortions in Argentina each year, causing more than 70,000 hospitalizations. (As The Washington Post points out, the Argentine Senate, like our own, gives the same number of senators to underpopulated rural states, which tend to be conservative, as it does to the more progressive urban parts where most people live.)
This defeat isn’t the end, though: The women’s movement vows to press forward next session. Meanwhile, thousands of Argentinians have formally disavowed the Catholic Church, which receives state funding based on membership—over $682 million last year, not counting tax reductions. And a mother of two has died of sepsis after attempting a self-abortion using parsley. You can thank that nice Argentinian Pope Francis for that.
Speaking of the pope, in the United States, the Catholic Church now controls one in six hospital beds, thanks to mergers with and closings of secular hospitals. In some rural areas, the Catholic hospital is the only one for miles around. This means that procedures banned by the church are unavailable to patients: birth control, sterilization, abortion, IVF, and, most disturbingly, standard ways of managing miscarriage. Several women have nearly died because the Catholic-hospital ER refused to complete a miscarriage in progress (the same rules that killed Savita Halappanavar in Ireland and jump-started the Yes campaign to overturn that country’s abortion ban). And if you want a tubal ligation after giving birth, which many women do, you’re out of luck. The worst of it is the church makes no effort to inform people of their policies; in fact, they don’t always even acknowledge that a hospital is Catholic.
Abortion opponents, and most governments, portray having a baby as good, natural, and socially important. But once you’re pregnant, don’t expect to advance in your profession, or even keep your job. Up and down the income scale, and despite laws that supposedly protect them, pregnancy discrimination is rampant in the United States and around the world, with women being denied reasonable accommodations (carrying a water bottle, extra bathroom breaks, a bulletproof vest that fits) and basically being told their career is over.
In the UK, according to the Financial Times, more than a third of employers continue discriminatory policies that have been illegal since 1975. Moving to France won’t solve your problem. France has always been obsessed with producing more French people, and as a result it has great family policies—an excellent national health-care system, paid maternity leave, money paid directly to families, and national daycare that is the envy of American moms. If you want to stay home or just work casually, it’s great. But if, like most pregnant women and mothers, you want a real job, the male-designed work world will sideline you as inconvenient, uncommitted, and expensive. Of women with three children—those kids they were nudged to bear pour la France—less than 40 percent are employed.
At least French women get good medical care. According to a joint report by NPR and ProPublica, the United States has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the developed world, especially for women and babies of color—and it’s the only country where the death rate for women is rising. The reasons include poverty, racism, hospitals and doctors that are ill-prepared for obstetric emergencies, and the low priority given to the issue. Moreover, for every woman who dies (700 annually in the United States), 70 almost do. For women of color, the dangers are stark: The New York Times reports that “a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.”
The fertility rate (number of children per woman) is a highly political and politicized issue. All around the world, it’s dropping as countries become wealthier and more urbanized, and women become more educated and independent. Once women have choices, not that many want a big bunch of kids. This disturbs some governments, who want a bigger population, but it’s late in the day to push women back into the kitchen. Moreover, in countries where female feticide and infanticide have seriously lowered the number of women there are only so many wombs available. “’We lose 1,400 girls a year. Who will our boys marry?’: Armenia’s quandary,” read a recent headline in The Guardian.
It would be nice if countries that want more people considered the benefits of immigration or valuing girls or improving women’s lives so that they could have that second or third baby, which many women say they would like to have, and not risk becoming a downwardly mobile drudge. Some parts of China are dealing with the low fertility rate by trying to prevent unhappy couples from divorcing, a popular conservative non-solution. (As in the United States, most Chinese divorces are initiated by women, for some crazy reason.) Here, a big disparity has opened up between women: Those with a college education and who live in big cities or on the coasts tend to have their first baby around age 30, while less-educated women living in rural areas, the South and the Midwest, have their first babies 10 years earlier. (This is quite a change from 1980, when the most common ages to have one’s first child were 18 and 19.)
Given how little the United States does to help single mothers and low-income mothers, and how unforgiving the labor market is of care work, early childbearing too often locks women and their children into permanent disadvantage. It’s as if we want to push women to have kids—the cultural pressure on young educated women is pretty relentless—but only if they’re middle-class and white. The contempt for mothers and children of color is all over our culture—from the fact that we allow 34 percent of black kids and 28 percent of Latino kids to grow up poor (for whites it’s a still-too-high 12 percent) to the cruelty shockingly on display at the border, where families are being brutally separated, with little consideration for the traumatic effects. If those kids were, um, Norwegian, this would not be happening.
So there it is. In the United States, you have to have kids, but only if you’re the right sort of person, and in much of the world you have to produce the right sort of kid (a boy), and in general do everything right and be perfect. All this while the world is in crisis and women are taking the brunt of it. Opioid addiction among pregnant women has risen fourfold in this country. Instead of help, we offer punishment.
On the bright side, new laws in Idaho and Utah mean it is now legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states. But watch out, ladies. If you screw up, you could end up being charged with criminal homicide, like Samantha Jones in Pennsylvania, who is charged with killing her baby by breastfeeding him while using prescribed and illegal drugs. Never mind that doctors say the risk of drugs entering breast milk is tiny, and breast is still best. Never mind that doctors agree that punishing addicted pregnant women and mothers is counterproductive. She was the mom, so it’s obviously her fault.