During last week’s Supreme Court hearings that could erode or completely destroy Roe v. Wade, Justice Amy Coney Barrett focused on adoption and safe haven laws as an alternative to abortion. This ignores the fact that neither is a viable alternative, and that abortion has been a right for five decades. Perhaps most troublingly it ignores the fact that in the United States, every pregnancy endangers the life of the pregnant person. Abortion clinics are the only safe haven we have available to pregnant people, and the far right wants them gone.
Pregnancy undermines earnings, health, employability, relationships, emotional well-being, and so much more. It can and does kill. And it will only get worse as access to abortion falls apart.
Criticism of abortion restrictions often focuses on how these laws fail to allow for exemptions when a pregnancy endangers a life. These criticisms fail to understand the true scope of the maternal mortality epidemic. The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate in the wealthy world. It is the only nation in which maternal mortality is increasing. A woman giving birth today is more likely to die than her mother was 25 years ago.
It’s time to get clear about what we’re talking about when we pretend that adoption is a viable alternative to abortion, or that abandoning babies at a firehouse is a substitute for access to birth control. We’re talking about letting women die. A 2021 study tied abortion bans directly to increases in maternal deaths.
We’re talking about many other ways we punish people through pregnancy, too.
There’s the unbearable debt. With good insurance, the delivery costs alone average $4500. That’s if a person is lucky enough not to suffer complications. And it doesn’t include months of prenatal care, which can be thousands of dollars. If you have no insurance, you’re easily looking at $20,000 or more for an uncomplicated vaginal birth. These costs endanger the ability of a birthing person to get care, to make a decent life, to be safe during and after birth.
There’s the fact that pregnancy is the highest risk time for domestic violence. Homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant people. Perhaps forced birthers do not know that if the pregnant person dies, so too does the baby.
There’s the fact that a pregnancy, especially in a collapsing, racist, sexist, inadequate health system that cares little for mothers, can permanently disable a person. At least 50,000 people nearly die or are left disabled by childbirth every year. We’re so pro-life that we’re doing absolutely nothing about it, with anti-choice leaders actively blocking measures to make birth safer and improve access to medical care.
Among the lucky ones who don’t end up with severe disabilities, pregnancy still takes a toll. A third of women are left incontinent after birth. A quarter of people who give birth say their births were traumatic. At least one in 10 new parents struggle with postpartum depression. And contrary to popular belief, the biggest risk factor for PPD isn’t hormonal; it’s social. Lack of financial resources, an unsupportive spouse, inadequate community, and trauma are all risk factors. It doesn’t matter what causes it, though, because there’s no widespread funding for quality postpartum depression treatment, and mental health parity remains a fantasy. That’s due in large part to the fact that Republican anti-choicers want it that way. After all, if we don’t make mothers suffer until they’re tempted to commit suicide, then we don’t care about babies!
There’s the many ways we abuse new mothers. We don’t guarantee them paid time off of work. We expect them to shoulder all of the burdens of parenthood and household labor, and demand that they praise their partner for so much as changing a diaper. We assure them that no matter what they’re doing—working, staying home, breastfeeding, formula feeding—it’s wrong and they’re bad because of it. Then we judge them and dismiss them as “hormonal” when they get depressed. Adoption and safe haven laws won’t preserve postpartum mental health. No one cares about the woman once she’s no longer a baby vessel, though.
For people who want to be pregnant, pregnancy is difficult, long, and extremely challenging. For those who don’t, it can feel like a life sentence. And given the lifelong consequences of pregnancy—mental health issues, debt, abuse, disability, and so much more—it often is.
That’s for the people lucky enough to survive.
Until we improve our maternity care system, we must stop talking about abortion exceptions to save the life of the mother. We have to stop pretending that there is a group of women whose pregnancies endanger their lives, and then there’s everyone else. In a collapsing maternity care system, anyone can die.
And many do.
This is not news. The information is there for anyone who wants it. But we collectively don’t care about women who opt to become mothers, and anti-choicers believe they should suffer. They should suffer if they choose to keep their babies. They should suffer if they want abortion. They should suffer if they want birth control. To be a woman should be to be a mother, and to be a mother should mean suffering.
The cruelty has always been the point.