Priced out of having a baby – why health reform is essential for women’s health and rights

Image source: WikiMedia Commons
Image source: WikiMedia Commons

Having a baby and starting a family should be the most natural thing in the world – not something that puts families at the brink of bankruptcy. Yet, families in America are finding themselves paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for pregnancy and childbirth related costs – even when they already have health insurance in place when getting pregnant.

The New York Times ran a piece on the increasing cost of child birth in America, interviewing couples who already had health insurance when they got pregnant yet still were slapped with bills for thousands of dollars that they had to pay themselves. Many insurance packages do not include maternity benefits; in order to get maternity health care covered, families must pay hundreds of dollars extra per month.  Without maternity coverage, pregnancy-related expenses can easily run in the tens of thousands  – sums hard to pay even for employed and well-earning couples, let alone couples making low or medium incomes that overqualify them for Medicaid.* While conservatives are waging a war on women’s reproductive and sexual rights, the costs of having a baby can easily seem like too much to bear.

The Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “ObamaCare”, was enacted in 2011. The legislation has brought tremendous positive changes to women’s sexual and reproductive health care services, such as requiring health care plans to provide women with no-cost coverage for all FDA approved methods of contraception and sterilization. This is a huge step forward in the fight for affordable and accessible sexual and reproductive health care services for American women, who continue to battle for the right to control their own sexual and reproductive decisions. Access to birth control not only gives women more power to determine when and how they want to get pregnant, but affordable contraceptives are also likely to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.

Image source: WikiMedia Commons. Photo by Sean McGrath.
Image source: WikiMedia Commons. Photo by Sean McGrath.

For women who do want to get pregnant or are already pregnant, the health care act brings several other benefits as well. Under the new Act, pregnancy can no longer be treated as a “pre-existing condition” and used as a reason to deny insurance coverage for women; women cannot be charged higher insurance rates merely because of their sex; and maternity care has to be offered in all new health care plans. These changes will allow more women, and more couples, to rest assured that when they do decide to get pregnant and start a family, pregnancy and childbirth will not result in astronomical out-of-pocket costs. Thankfully, the essential health care services required during pregnancy, in child birth and after delivery, will be available for affordable rates and covered by insurance plans.

Discussions and debates about sexual, reproductive and maternal health often rotate around women, fueling the perception that women’s health is solely a women’s issue – but it is also important to remember that these services, while focused on women, are essential to entire families. Family planning is not merely a women’s issue, and affordable pregnancy care is not only essential for women’s health, but for the health and well-being of their babies and spouses as well. Contraceptives are not only a women’s issue because every pregnancy, whether intended or unintended, is the result, and responsibility, of two people. For both men and women, the ability to control when, how, and with whom to start a family and to ensure that creating that family is done in a safe and healthy way not only benefits women, but families and societies on a much larger scale. While health reform is, in many ways, a women’s issue as women carry much of the burden of the previous broken system, the benefits of fixing it have repercussions that reach far beyond women’s well being and health. Realization of women’s sexual and reproductive rights benefits everyone – which should be a goal and result that everyone, across party lines, could stand behind and strive for.

For more information on ObamaCare’s implications for women, please visit the below resources.

* Medicaid is the US government’s health insurance program for poor families and individuals.

Featured image by Flickr user Tatiana Vdb. Image listed under Creative Commons license.

More than just welfare: Why Finnish family benefits support the entire society

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Photo source: www.kela.fi

The Finnish “Baby Box” has made headlines in the news since BBC published a comprehensive article about the history of this peculiar and yet envied Finnish maternity perk. The “baby box” – or as it is referred to in Finland, the maternity package – is a box filled with essential baby and maternity items, such as cloth nappies, baby clothes, toys, baby books, and the box itself, which can be used as a crib for a baby, and comes with a fitted mattress. The “baby box” is only a small part of a broad package of benefits offered to families in Finland, including around 3-4 months of paid maternity leave for the mother, additional 5-6 months of paid parental leave which can be taken by either mother or a father, and 54 days of paid paternity leave specifically for the father.

I don’t have personal experience with Finnish maternity benefits, but a close friend of mine, Outi Vierola, does. She had her firstborn child, Fiona, in December last year. She notes that the original reason behind the “baby box” was to encourage mothers to get health checks done during pregnancy, and the maternity package contributed notably to the decline in child mortality in Finland. Even today, a requirement for receiving the maternity package is for the mother  to see a doctor for a check-up before giving birth.

Photo by Antti Vierola
Photo by Antti Vierola

Outi considers the “Baby Box” absolutely wonderful. She remembered asking a nurse in the earlier stages of her pregnancy what basic items they should get before the baby arrives, and the nurse told them that there really wasn’t anything else they absolutely needed in addition to what is in the “baby box” – the package has everything essential for the first 6-12 months of the baby’s life. Every child born in Finland receives it – and therefore gets an equal start to life, regardless of the socio-economic situation of their parents.

Outi also noted that the Finnish “neuvola” system is a crucial part of the Finnish welfare model. In Finnish, the word “neuvo” means advice, and “neuvola” translates to “a place for advice”. These maternity and child health clinics form a specific branch of the Finnish public health care system for maternity, family and children’s health services. Finnish mothers usually visit neuvola between 8-10 times during a pregnancy. The visits are free, and include two ultrasounds. In addition to health care services, nurses in neuvola offer information and advice, organize family support groups, and help parents with the baby-parent interaction once the child has been born. Outi noted that her experience with her local neuvola was purely positive – she felt she could access the services easily and with short notice, she could always get a hold of someone for advice, and information was easily available. She doesn’t consider these services, nor the other maternity and family benefits, as welfare or handouts, but believes it is the responsibility of the state to provide certain basic services for its citizens in an affordable and accessible manner.

Outi plans to return to work in August, when Fiona is around 9 months old. At this point, Antti, the father, will stay home on his paternity leave for a few additional months. Outi noted that the Finnish model not only supports healthy pregnancies and deliveries, but also makes it easier for women to combine career and family if they wish to do so. It is also becoming easier for fathers to take on stronger roles as caregivers and remain home with their babies. Ensuring that fathers are included in parental benefits is important for supporting the bond between the father and the baby, but also essential for gender equality. If nothing changes with traditional parenting roles, mothers will end up double- and triple-burdened by their work and domestic responsibilities, and fathers may end up feeling left out as caregivers. Encouraging women to return to work after having children is useless as long as the support services offered for families are inadequate – a situation that remains a reality for majority of families around the world, both in developing and developed countries.

Photo by Antti Vierola
Photo by Antti Vierola

The Finnish model is not about charity or giveaways, but about supporting entire families so that mothers can experience safe pregnancies and deliveries, and parents have the means and knowledge to raise their children with confidence and with support. Healthy mothers give birth to healthy babies, and informed parents raise happy, healthy children. These support systems and benefits are not handouts, nor are they just for the mothers – they benefit the entire society.

Photos of Outi and Fiona by the happy and talented photographer-father, Antti Vierola.

Mothers Make This World Go Around

Today, the world is celebrating Mother’s Day. Earlier this week, Save the Children published its “State of the World’s Mothers” report, ranking DR Congo as the worst place in the world for mothers – and my home country, Finland, as the best.

I am not surprised. Having grown up in Finland, I have high appreciation towards the Finnish social and health care services, many of which are geared towards mothers. Finnish mothers have access to affordable sexual, reproductive and prenatal health care services, which make pregnancy and child birth safe and happy experiences to most mothers in Finland. The fact that these services are currently out of reach for millions of women around the world represents a global tragedy not only for mothers, but for families and for entire societies.

Emma&MamaMy mother has been an amazing influence in my life. Not once have I, or my sisters, felt that we didn’t have her full support behind us. She never stopped supporting us, believing in us, encouraging us – and most importantly, we have always known how much she loves us. Much has been said about mothers’ love, and for a good reason: it is a force to be reckoned with, one that has the power to safely guide children through the biggest challenges and obstacles. That is what my mother has done for me and my sisters – given us guidance and support, so that we never have to worry about getting lost. I know I can always turn to her for help, advice and support, no matter how far I am, and no matter how old I get.

Mothers all over the world do this, every single day. They wake up in the morning ready to take on multiple roles as wives, as workers, as cleaners, as cooks, as entrepreneurs, as farmers – and as mothers. While juggling these various roles, they nurture and care for their children, and protect their children from harm. The love of a mother does not depend on a country, and there is no doubt that vast majority of actions taken by mothers around the world are driven by one thing – mothers’ love for their children. That love alone can, and has, performed miracles, and continues to do so every day all over the world.

Simply put, Mothers make this world go around.

Mothers are defying odds bringing up their children in the most challenging conditions, pushing through difficulties, danger and sometimes even death. While being a good mother does not depend on where you live, those support structures that countries like Finland have in place are absolutely necessary for mothers all over the world, so that they can enjoy healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries, and raise healthy, happy, educated and nourished children despite the country they live in. When I was born, my mother continued to bleed heavily after the delivery and reached a fairly critical condition. Had I been born in a different country, with inadequate or inaccessible health care services, my mother probably would not have survived. She would have been an incredible mother despite where I was born – but she might be alive today because I was born in a country with proper maternal and prenatal health care. Every mother in the world deserves this.

Every mother in the world deserves a safe pregnancy, a safe delivery, and a chance to see their children grow up healthy and happy. No woman should ever have to fear for losing their own life while giving birth to a new one.

Mothers around the world are performing miracles for their children every day. We, as societies, as families, and as individuals, owe it to mothers to honor them every single day for that, and to step up and provide mothers with the support and services they need and deserve. That is neither “charity” nor “welfare” – through supporting mothers, we support families and we support societies. It is simply common sense – and more than that, it is our responsibility and duty. Mothers all over the world deserve that, and so much more.

Happy Mother’s Day to my own, amazing and inspiring mother – If I one day become half of the mother that she has been to me, I_MG_0860_2 will consider myself the greatest mother on earth.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mothers around the world as well – none of us would be where we are today without you. You truly do make this world go around.

If you want to find ways to support Mother’s around the world, here are a few organizations, initiatives and groups focusing on mothers that are currently participating in the Raise for Women challenge:

Don’t forget to check out the resources on the Women Deliver website’s Knowledge Center on maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and remember to let us know if you will be attending the conference – we would love to hear from you!

For more information, here are some resources on maternal health:

Prioritizing Women and Girls in Ghana

Mmofraturo Girls’ School, Kumasi, Ghana

Ghana is among the countries with National elections scheduled for later this year.  Having been in the country working on a Gender-related project for the past seven months, my natural inclination has been to look for how Candidates are addressing the particular needs of women and girls in their party manifestos.

What I have noticed is a lot of rhetoric about addressing women’s issues and promoting gender equality, but without the same concrete plans of action that accompany promises of improving the economy and addressing issues impacting youth.

Creating a Women’s Manifesto for Ghana

In 2003, the Women’s Manifesto for Ghana, spearheaded by the Regional Office of West Africa for ABANTU for Development aimed to address the lack of women’s representation in Ghanaian politics and consequently the failure to give due attention to the needs of women and girls.

ABANTU uses outreach, training and advocacy to equip women with the tools needed to access leadership positions, participate in national development processes and make women’s rights a mainstay of national policymaking. Source

Since 2003, the Manifesto along with ABANTU’s advocacy work has contributed to progress on issues impacting women in Ghana; influencing legislation to criminalize human trafficking and domestic violence.

Ghanaian Women Speak About Their Priorities for This Election

Still, there remain key areas of Ghanaian women’s lives where improvements are needed.  I sat down with a group of young women in Ghana to discuss what issues they would like to see addressed in the upcoming election and two main themes emerged from our conversation: Motherhood, particularly maternity leave and access to affordable childcare; and education.

The group passionately discussed their take on how these pressing matters impact the lives of Ghanaian girls and women, and what actions they think should be taken by the government.  To see what they had to say Check out the video!

How do the issues discussed in the video compare with those faced by women in your own country?

If you were a policy maker, what would be your top three priorities for improving the lives of women and girls?