Does “pro-life” include mothers?

August 30th, 2017

You know what is easy to care about, easy to love? Babies. It is almost impossible not to swoon over their chubby legs and tiny, grasping hands. There is nothing quite like that clean baby smell or their soft, fragile skin. It’s no wonder that anti-abortion groups frequently use pictures of smiling, twinkly-eyed newborns to make their case. We look at these idealized portrayals of babies and want to care for and protect them. Of course, as parents know, the reality of caring for a newborn is much more complicated and challenging. There are picture-perfect moments alongside sleepless nights and various explosions of bodily fluids.

As a chaplain resident in a children’s hospital, I saw first-hand the whole-person care offered to sick children. The hospital décor was colorful and whimsical. Volunteers with games and books were omnipresent, and local celebrities roamed the halls. Despite the tragedies that led to kids being in the hospital in the first place, the general vibe was upbeat and hopeful. When residents from other hospitals visited me, they often exclaimed that even adult hospitals should be like this.

Our perception of children as innocent, especially very young ones, makes it easy for us to feel sympathy when they suffer. We think to ourselves, “They don’t deserve this,” as if adults “deserve” their medical conditions. We echo Job’s friends when adults receive a tragic diagnosis but would never think of using those same arguments against children.

As a nation, we have done such a good job of caring for infants and newborn babies that infant mortality is at its lowest point in history, according to the CDC. Over the past fifty years, the public health community has worked to prevent birth defects, reduce preterm birth, and improve outcomes for very premature babies. While this is cause for celebration, the focus on our tiniest humans has a cost — a shocking rise in maternal mortality.

According to a report from NPR’s Morning Edition, the United States has the worst record in the developed world on maternal mortality, with birthing mothers here more than three times more likely to die during the maternal period than women across the border in Canada and six times more likely than Scandinavians. There are several explanations for this shocking disparity: unplanned pregnancies, our fragmented healthcare system and a greater prevalence of C-sections, to name a few. Ultimately, the American medical system shifted its focus from maternal health and safety to infant health and safety with disastrous results for women. Even under Medicaid in many states, babies are covered for a full year, while women are only covered for 60 days post-partum.

Given the low incidence of maternal death in other developed countries, our systemic abandonment of mothers is tragic and sinful. Unlike innocent babies, we might have less sympathy for the complicated reality of women’s lives. Women coming to give birth might have chronic health issues, drug addiction issues or relationship issues. They might have made choices with which we disagree or label as sin. This should not affect the type or quality of care they receive.

Christians, particularly those who pride themselves on being anti-abortion and pro-family, need to be just as passionate about supporting healthy, living mothers as they are towards infants. None of us came into this world outside of being born from a woman, and yet we neglect the care of these very women. We believe that the gift of life is precious, that every child is beloved in God’s sight, but we have abandoned the women through whom this gift occurs. Instead of seeing this rise in maternal mortality as a public health crisis, we see it as an individual tragedy.

As we continue in this country to debate and reform our healthcare system, we must be sure that women do not receive the short end of the stick. Maternal health coverage, pre- and post-partum, could be the difference between life and death for many women. It is also sinful that we have the resources and the ability to care for women, but we have neglected them. The flourishing of those cute, roly-poly babies on anti-abortion billboards depends on the flourishing of their mothers. Can Christians embrace a comprehensive pro-life ethic that extends to the mothers of babies they so desperately want born, or will anti-abortion Christians continue to draw the line at being merely pro-birth?

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