The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last June fulfilled a long-term ambition of the nation’s pro-life community by overturning Roe v. Wade, but it meant kicking the neuralgic issue of abortion back to the states to hash out. Forced again to talk about how abortion figures in social policy, some common ground, treacherous as the San Andreas fault, is still possible to find and even cross.
Despite its great wealth and big talk about family values, the United States remains the worst performing industrialized nation on maternity care. From health and nutrition supports to family leave and benefits policies in the workplace, American women have been left far behind their peers in other Western countries, and it shows. Maternal and infant mortality rates in some American states rival those of the most capacity-deprived nations in the developing world.
The divergence in outcomes in the United States compared to peer states has only widened in recent years. In 2020 the U.S. maternal mortality rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, almost three times the 8.7 deaths per 100,000 experienced in second-place France and more than 10 times worse than the 1.7 deaths per 100,000 experienced in best-performing New Zealand.
According to a 2020 analysis conducted by the March of Dimes, more than 7 million U.S. women of childbearing age live in “maternity care deserts,” counties with low-to-no access to prenatal and maternity care. Although U.S. women of all backgrounds endure maternal mortality at significantly higher rates than women in other industrialized countries, the problem is most acute in the nation’s Black communities, where loss of life because of pregnancy-related causes is three times the rate of white communities.
These outcomes should particularly concern the pro-life community, because maternal mortality rates trend much higher in states that have established the tightest restrictions on abortion access. According to researchers, those states have historically underfunded public health services and are catastrophically miserly on prenatal care.
If pro-lifers want to support both babies and their mothers, they need to get on board with state and national legislation meant to dramatically improve health care and other services for pregnant women, including mandating minimum standards for the treatment of pregnant women at worksites.
And while many U.S. employers in recent years have made significant improvements on family leave, the Catholic Church continues to lag far behind. It has been decades since Catholic sisters and other religious men and women did most of the heavy lifting at Catholic schools and other diocesan and social institutions. There is no excuse for church employers to remain laggards on parental and other family leave policies and on protecting workers with families from missing out on career advancements and opportunities.
In 2021 researchers at FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across the country to ask about family leave policies. Officials at 98 dioceses did not bother to respond, not exactly an encouraging response from a church that presumably is striving to break away from the opaque practices of its past. Among the dioceses that did answer, FemCatholic found that 31 offered fully paid maternity leave for some time frame and that 32 others provided some percentage of employee salaries through short-term disability or state paid leave laws. A shocking 44 dioceses did not offer any paid leave at all, and only four dioceses offered 12 weeks of fully paid leave.
This is not compassionate treatment of employees and families; this is not defending human dignity. This is not prophetic leadership for a pro-family, pro-mother, pro-woman America. This has to change.
This article also appears in the March 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 3, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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