Tuesday is the 46th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision striking down laws that criminalized or restricted access to abortions. I can’t help remembering how I felt about this constitutional right for women back in 1984, when I was 18 years old, pregnant and terrified.
My most prominent feeling was one of gratitude. I was grateful that I had a choice — grateful that I could not be forced to endure a pregnancy and bring a child into this world when I was grossly unprepared to do so, emotionally, intellectually and financially. I was thankful that I had the right to choose, guaranteed to me and other women by the court on Jan. 22, 1973.
While I agonized over my decision of what to do — have an abortion, have the baby and raise it, or have the baby and place him or her for adoption — I vividly remember the ugly and unproductive anti-choice rhetoric and violence that I saw nearly every day in the newspapers and on television.
In the fall and early winter of 1984, there were ongoing clinic protests and picketing, and there was harassment of women seeking service and extreme violence against providers. I couldn’t believe what these zealots did and said to women who were trying to make the right choice about their health and life, a right they were and are guaranteed.
After much thought, prayer, internal debate and discussions with my family, I ultimately decided to have the baby and place her for adoption. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it was the right choice for me.
While I chose adoption and am an adoption advocate, I am also a fervent supporter of choice. How one responds to an unplanned pregnancy is an intensely personal decision that no one should make for a woman, except her and those she chooses to include.
Nearly 34 years after I made my personal choice, I am frustrated and dismayed that we are still distracted by and debating a woman’s right to choose. Think of what we could achieve as a country if we’d quit fighting over abortion rights — which nearly 60 percent of Americans agree should be legal in all or some cases — and come together to support women and motherhood and catch up to the rest of the world.
It is grossly hypocritical that anti-choice politicians and others who claim to be “pro-family” continue to focus on destroying abortion rights and access to birth control when our country is so miserably failing mothers, children and families on so many other fronts. We can do better, much better. Here are a few of the ways we are failing:
Maternal mortality rate
The rate in the U.S. has been climbing over the years, while the rest of the world has seen a steady decline in the number of women dying from childbirth. Yes, folks, we are on par with Afghanistan, Lesotho and Swaziland as countries with rising maternal mortality rates. Experts attribute the rise to high poverty rates and lack of access to health care. This is nothing short of appalling in a country that is among the wealthiest in the world.
What is also appalling is our lack of mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, provides eligible workers 12 weeks’ leave to care for a new child; however, this time away from work is not required to be financially supported. There is no mandate to make companies pay women or men for their “time off” caring for a newborn.
We are the only nation in the developed world that does not have a mandatory paid leave for new moms. Look around, and you’ll see just how pathetic this is: In Finland, new mothers are entitled to up to three years’ worth of paid leave. In the U.K., new moms get up to 39 weeks, Canadian moms get one year.
My daughter, who is now 33 years old and lives in New Zealand, recently had her second child and gets 18 weeks of paid leave and is eligible for up to 52 weeks total leave. While it’s hard to have her so far away, it is comforting to know that her role as a new mother is respected and acknowledged by her employer and her government.
The New Zealand government recently voted to extend the paid leave to 26 weeks for good reasons, as noted by the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety: “As well as the direct financial benefits to households and reducing stress on parents, extending paid parental leave has a range of positive impacts on child development and fostering parent-infant attachment.”
We need to ask ourselves how and why other developed nations can be so much more progressive and supportive of mothers than we are in the U.S.
Cost of child care
In addition to lost wages, it’s a sobering fact that U.S. couples spend on average 25.6 percent of their income on child-care costs. That number soars to nearly 53 percent for single parents, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association composed of 35 countries that was founded to improve economic development and social well-being around the world. It also noted that families living in 30 wealthy nations spend an average of 15 percent of their net income on child-care costs. It varies dramatically by country, with couples in some countries that provide government support spending as little as 4 percent.
According to the U.S. Census, families with a working mother spend nearly twice as much on child care as they did 30 years ago. In many states, it costs more to pay for an infant in day care than it costs for in-state college tuition at a four-year public institution.
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These statistics are daunting and, when put together, spell out a country that is anything but pro-child and pro-family. It’s time to change the debate from pro-choice vs. pro-life to constructive conversations that will lead to creating and implementing laws and policies that support women who choose to become mothers.
Let’s become a pro-motherhood country for those who choose it. Our future depends on it.
Christine Bauer is a writer and the author of “Those Three Words: A birth mother’s story of choice, chance & motherhood.” She is also the proud mother of three and grandmother of two. She lives in the Minneapolis area.