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6 ways America totally screws over pregnant women and mothers

It's Mother's Day, a time for cards, brunches, gifts, and appreciation.

But as Vox's Ezra Klein notes, America actually has a funny way of showing its appreciation for mothers through its public policy. We're the only developed nation in the world that doesn't have some kind of guaranteed paid maternity or sick leave. Child care is obscenely expensive and not guaranteed, and mothers face a 5 percent wage penalty for every child they have.

But as it turns out, that disregard for mothers at the policy level starts early — when women first get pregnant. We may say we love mothers, but we also have a weird tendency to do terrible things to the pregnant women who will soon become mothers.

1) We let postpartum women go back to work with gaping wounds

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This is a consequence of the fact that we don't have guaranteed paid maternity leave, but it doesn't get discussed as much as the whole "mom and dad need time to bond with baby" thing. (Which, to be clear, they absolutely do.)

Childbirth is a massive ordeal for the body to go through, and women's bodies needs time to recover. This should be obvious, and to most people it is. But we don't always think about what it means for a woman, physically, when she doesn't get paid time off from her job, and when she simply can't afford to take even unpaid time off — if, that is, her boss would let her take enough unpaid time off to fully heal in the first place.

An investigation from In These Times recently found that as many as one in four women go back to work less than two weeks after giving birth, largely due to economic pressures. That's not nearly enough time to heal, especially if the birth had a complication.

Reporter Sharon Lerner shares some horrific stories of what some of these women went through. One woman's C-section wound hadn't healed yet, and she went to work with pus dripping down her leg under her work clothes. Others developed depression and had breastfeeding problems because they were so constantly stressed and exhausted. I interviewed other women with similar experiences last year for Rewire.

"Some of these moms are waitstaff, and they don’t have time to pump their milk, they’re going to be up on their feet, they’re going back to work in two weeks, they’re still bleeding, they’re still having pain from sutures, whether those are perineal sutures or abdominal sutures or both, some of them have pelvic floor problems, they’re urinating on themselves — but they’re going to go stand on their feet for 14 hours to make money?" Danielle Spradlin, a lactation consultant, told me then. "That’s abhorrent. That’s how women die."

We could pass national paid family leave in this country, and we could do it relatively simply and cheaply. We're just not doing it, and that means we get women bleeding and dripping pus at work because they don't feel like they have other options.

2) Pregnancy discrimination at work is totally still a thing

Ugh, why?
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This is including, but not limited to, women being fired, not hired, forced out of a job, and denied a private place to pump breast milk, really basic needs like water breaks or a stool to sit on, or work opportunities — just because they are pregnant.

"Wait, aren't there laws against that?" you might say. Why yes, there are! The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, as the name suggests, prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. But that law has limitations — aside from the fact that it's a giant pain in the ass to actually take someone to court in order to make them respect your rights.

For one thing, the law only applies to companies with more than 15 employees. It's also written in such a way that a lot of employers are confused (or can credibly pretend to be confused) about what their obligations are.

That's why we need something like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, says Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center. The bill, first introduced in Congress by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) in 2013, is clearer about the fact that pregnant women, specifically, need specific protections for all the things that come with being pregnant.

The other challenge with getting real fairness for pregnant workers, Martin said, is the unconscious biases people often harbor toward mothers in the workplace. "Some people may think, 'Pregnant women are trouble, and I'd rather not.' They have subconscious stereotypes that mothers just aren't as competent or committed to their work."

3) We sometimes literally treat pregnant women like criminals

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You know those dorm room debates about abortion you've had? Where the pro-choice person says, "Well, if abortion were outlawed, we'd have to prosecute miscarriage as manslaughter!" And the pro-life person rolls her eyes, because that's just ridiculous?

Turns out ... that actually happens. Not just in countries like El Salvador where abortion is illegal, but also in America, where it's supposed to be a constitutionally protected right.

American prosecutors don't go after most women who have had miscarriages, of course. But as soon they get a whiff of circumstances surrounding a miscarriage that they might find morally objectionable — a fetus left in a dumpster after a miscarriage, a woman who tried to kill herself while she was pregnant, any woman who happened to be a drug addict when she miscarried — the prosecutors will come down on women with the full force of the law.

Even though abortion is legal, one woman in Indiana was recently charged with first-degree murder for trying to give herself a dangerous coat hanger abortion. (Prosecutors have since dropped those charges, but they're still trying for aggravated assault.)

And under a bizarre new law, now women in Indiana who have miscarriages are technically required to bring those remains (even if it's just a blood clot from their latest period) into a hospital to have them cremated or buried.

4) Sometimes we do unspeakably awful things to pregnant women in jail

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It's not enough that we sometimes throw women in jail, or at least try to, for the crime of having a bad pregnancy outcome. We also do plenty to create bad pregnancy outcomes for women who have been thrown in jail.

Most states still allow the monstrous practice of shackling pregnant women who are in labor, and even the states that have passed laws against it still don't always enforce those laws very well.

But that's not all. Rewire produced an excellent, and incredibly depressing, series of articles last year about the other horrible things that new or expectant mothers, and women in general, can endure in the prison system.

Pregnant women have miscarriages because their guards or other caregivers don't take their medical emergencies seriously. Pregnant women are not given enough food to sustain them during their pregnancies. Pregnant women are forced to undergo induced labor or C-sections against their will. Mothers who commit minor crimes have their parental rights stripped away and aren't given the chance to raise their own children.

Jail is miserable for most people, and it's designed to be. But for pregnant women and mothers, it can become tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

5) Sometimes we let unspeakably awful things happen to pregnant women in general

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This is a particular problem in Catholic hospitals, which provide one in six of America's hospital beds.

Catholic hospitals follow strict anti-abortion guidelines from the bishops. That would be fine, religious freedom being what it is, except for two things. One, a lot of non-Catholic women might not know that their nearest hospital is Catholic-run with Catholic restrictions on reproductive health. Two, the Church's anti-abortion directives can have troubling health consequences for women who don't even want an abortion.

As the Guardian recently reported, one Catholic hospital operating under these doctrines systematically refused proper care to women having miscarriages. It forced one woman to go into sepsis before inducing labor, repeatedly sent another home in agony before treating her, and forced another woman to spend three days in the hospital before she required additional surgery.

All of this was because these women's medical emergencies weren't yet literally life-threatening enough to warrant an "abortion." And the problem isn't isolated to one hospital.

Nor is it just about Catholic hospitals. States that have enacted 20-week abortion bans, like Texas, often refuse medical care to women who only find out at their 20-week ultrasound that something is terribly wrong with their wanted pregnancy. One Texas woman was recently forced to spend four days delivering a stillborn baby instead of having the safe abortion her doctor recommended.

6) We don't trust pregnant women to decide whether they want or need to stay pregnant

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The majority of women who have abortions, about 60 percent, are already mothers. That means they know what it means to bear, give birth to, and raise a child.

But lawmakers don't treat them that way. In order to make sure women have really thought about their decision, they make women wait for 24, 48, even 72 hours (not including weekends, as if women only think on business days) to get an abortion. That means spending unnecessary extra time and money on getting to doctors' appointments, when the vast majority of women have already made up their minds by the time they get to the clinic.

Some states actually make doctors lie to women about the supposed "risks" of abortion that the medical establishment disagrees are risks at all, like breast cancer or mental illness, in order to try to convince women to change their mind.

These are only a few of the hundreds of anti-abortion laws that have been passed just in the past five years — some of which have been specifically designed by anti-abortion lobbyists to close clinics.

Pregnancy is difficult, expensive, painful, and dangerous. For women who want a baby at the end of it all, it's worth it. But for women who don't, some people don't think their opinion matters.