Having recently returned to work following maternity leave, I’ve been reflecting on my experience with pregnancy, childbirth and clumsily learning how to care for my now five-month-old baby. Humans aren’t delivered by storks and we don’t spring from our parents’ heads as fully formed adults capable of caring for ourselves, but the attitudes shaping this country’s policies surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care often seem to be based on ancient mythology and silly stories parents tell their kids to avoid awkward conversations about sex.
Sadly, these misguided notions have been invoked as justification to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as the law’s critics have asserted that men can’t get pregnant and pregnancy is not a disease (although before the ACA’s enactment, insurance companies could consider pregnancy a pre-existing condition warranting higher premium charges and deductibles if not outright denial of coverage).
Despite not experiencing any of the scary complications that can occur during the nondisease of pregnancy, I’m befuddled by a prevailing mindset that discourages prenatal coverage as a standard element of health insurance and paid leave time for new mothers and fathers. This attitude certainly isn’t conducive to good health for children, parents or families.
Some have suggested that the ACA’s requirement that insurance policies sold on the healthcare exchange cover obstetric care constitutes special coverage unfairly given to women at men’s expense. However, every single one of us, regardless of sex, exists because someone with a uterus carried us for months and then gave birth through a usually long, painful and sometimes traumatic process (which, in the United States, is shamefully often threatening to health and life). That some of the insurance premiums paid by people who will never become pregnant ultimately cover expenses associated with pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal care isn’t an injustice, it’s just paying it forward.
In waiting until age 37 to have a child, I’ve heard countless lectures about how selfish it is to be childless by choice and that we all have a duty to procreate for various reasons (all of them ironically selfish). But when it comes time to pay for it, human reproduction is suddenly viewed as an extraordinary burden to employers, other insurance subscribers and society at large rather than the natural process by which every one of us comes into this world.
Yes, healthcare for pregnant people, fetuses and newborns is expensive (as is healthcare for all other humans in the United States), and accommodating absences for new parents presents challenges to employers and coworkers. But it doesn’t look like nature will be changing the way our species perpetuates itself anytime soon–there’s no reason to single out pregnancy and childbirth from other naturally occurring health conditions, so we might as well learn to deal with them in ways that don’t cause further losses to society.
Today, my daughter is healthy and happy, largely because we have insurance that covered most of the costs, my employer provides paid parental leave and is accommodating of my family’s needs, and we could afford for my husband to take an extended unpaid leave along with me. But many American families aren’t so fortunate.
Families with low incomes, families of color and single parents have the least access to so many of the supports that save lives and strengthen families and are then cruelly stereotyped as inferior, while white, middle-class, married couples who are more likely to have robust insurance coverage, access to high-quality health providers and paid leave benefits are admonished to have more children so as to maintain an adequate population of “people like us”.
Historically, the stork has been revered as a sign of good fortune, even enjoying special protection in some cultures. Why don’t we show such regard for the actual human bearers and nurturers of children? A society that claims to value children’s lives must also value their parents’ lives, especially during the early years when so much crucial development takes place, and reflect this value in its policies related to health and family.
— Julie Cassidy