Maternal and Infant Mortality Should Shock Our Conscience

This year, Americans spent a record amount -- more than $20 billion -- on gifts in celebration of Mother's Day. Ironically, this also was a record year for maternal mortality.

The rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States has been rising sharply since 1987 to the current all-time high. The maternal mortality ratio more than doubled between 1990 and 2009. Pennsylvania ranks 24th in the nation

This problem is particularly severe in Philadelphia. A study released last week found that maternal mortality in Philadelphia was 27.4 per 100,000 live births over a three-year period, 50% higher than the national average.

While the mortality rate has been increasing dramatically here, it has declined by more than 30% in the rest of the world.

According to the Washington Post, maternal mortality in the United States is more than double the rate in Saudi Arabia and Canada, and more than triple the rate in the United Kingdom. The lifetime risk of maternal death is greater in the U.S. than in 40 other countries, including almost all other industrialized nations.

Maternal mortality is seriously stratified by race and ethnicity: African American women die of pregnancy-related complications more often than white women, regardless of income or education level.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately half of these deaths for women of all races are preventable.

What's the solution? Apparently, it isn't money alone as the United States already spends more per person on healthcare than any other industrialized country.

As we discovered while researching our 2012 report Through the Lens of Equality, bias and discrimination strongly correlate with poor health in women--and discrimination against working mothers starts even before a woman gives birth.

Though legal protections exist for pregnant workers, there are gaps in the law that allow some employers to get away with a hidden form of discrimination by refusing to make temporary, minor accommodations for pregnant workers. Accommodations sometimes as simple as carrying a bottle of water or being able to lean on a stool in jobs that usually require standing for hours. Too often pregnant women are forced to choose between following their doctor's advice or their boss' orders. No one should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and employment.

Yet legislators for years have focused far more attention to limiting access to abortion than enacting evidence-based health policies that protect women who want to give birth to healthy babies and remain healthy themselves.

Providing temporary accommodations for pregnant women in the workforce should not be a partisan issue, but until recently it has been.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was re-introduced - once again - in Congress. The difference is that this time the Act has Republican co-sponsors.

The Pennsylvania version recently re-introduced in Harrisburg as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health, is also attracting Republican sponsors.

Some conservatives, after years of talking endlessly about the sanctity of motherhood and the nobility of self-sufficiency-- are finally expressing support for reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. So far, fourteen states including New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and New York have passed similar protections

But much more is needed, because discrimination against working mothers often results in unhealthy babies. Pennsylvania's infant mortality rate is higher even than the maternal mortality rate, ranking us 35th in the nation.

Medical experts recommend new mothers breastfeed their babies up until they are one year old. Experts tell us that breastfeeding benefits both baby and mom. Nonetheless, some employers who are not covered by provisions in the Affordable Care Act refuse to provide a sanitary, private space for breastfeeding workers. Given the fact that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of families with children, it's no wonder Americans are also failing breastfeeding goals set by public health experts. The Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act can help remedy this in Pennsylvania.

We know that in part, the abysmal status of maternal mortality and the general poor health of women in Pennsylvania can be turned around by updating state laws and policies. The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health is working to do exactly that. While numerous factors, including the ravages of poverty, contribute to the shameful statistics about maternal and infant mortality, simple measures like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act can help. It time for our lawmakers to pass laws that match their campaign rhetoric. Maybe then we can honestly say we are doing as much for moms and moms-to-be as we ceremoniously do on Mother's Day each year.

Kate Michelman, President Emeritus NARAL Pro-choice American and co-chair of WomenVote PA, an initiative of the Women's Law Project.

Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, Women's Law Project.