Show Hide image

Giving birth to a daughter in Trump’s America has shattered my belief in social progress

My daughter was one of four million babies born last year in the US, the most dangerous country in the developed world to give birth.

It fills me with bitter sadness that my daughter, my first child, was born under a president who is an open misogynist, who brags about sexual assault, who responds to criticism with sexist slurs and whose policies will harm large numbers of women. I had not believed that Donald Trump could be elected, in part because I had long harboured an optimism that with each new generation the world was becoming a more progressive and tolerant place. How naive and complacent I was.

My daughter was born last March and I marvelled at the determination with which she rooted for milk and gripped my finger, and then learned to hold her head up, to propel herself forward, to stand tall. And I found myself worrying: when would someone first make her feel smaller because she is a girl? When will someone first make her feel vulnerable, first make her scared? How can I prepare her for the demeaning remarks and furtive gropes that women have learned to laugh off and shake off, and the incidents we just can’t? How can I teach her when to be fearless, and when to trust her fear?

My daughter was one of four million babies born last year in Trump’s America, the most dangerous country in the developed world to give birth. The US maternal mortality rate is the highest in the OECD – and rising. Childbirth kills between 700 and 800 women a year here. The US spends more on healthcare per capita than any other country, but funds are unevenly distributed. In a medical system that regularly overlooks maternal health, women of all classes and ethnic backgrounds die from preventable complications, but the inequalities are stark: black mothers are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers.

Almost half of births in the US are paid for by Medicaid, the state-funded healthcare system for people with low incomes and no private health insurance. During Trump’s first year in office the Republicans have fought unsuccessfully to shrink Medicaid and roll back Obama-era reforms that protect women and newborns, such as regulation to stop insurers refusing to cover pregnant women, or selling healthcare plans that do not cover prenatal care and childbirth. Without health insurance, mothers can expect medical bills of $30,000 to $50,000 to have a baby.

Just under half of pregnancies in the US are “unintended”: where the woman became pregnant earlier than planned or had not wanted to have a child. The Trump administration has launched multiple attacks on women’s reproductive choices. Only swift legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union thwarted attempts by officials to block four teenagers in immigration detention from obtaining abortions. One of them had been raped. And last year, Republicans threatened to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood, an organisation that provides millions of women with access to contraception, cancer screening, STI tests and abortions. This is more than an assault on individual freedom. When women have children before they are ready, they are more likely to suffer from medical problems. Their babies are more likely to be born underweight and less likely to receive adequate prenatal care. Unintended pregnancies can be deadly.

Tens of thousands of babies were born suffering from opioid withdrawal this past year, because of their mothers’ addictions to prescription painkillers, heroin or fentanyl. Thanks to the opioid epidemic, life expectancy in the US has fallen for two consecutive years. It is America’s greatest public health crisis in decades and one that disproportionately affects Trump’s white working-class base – and yet the president has not allocated any new funds to the issue. He has failed to deliver on his promised “really tough, really big, really great” drugs awareness campaign and major public health posts remain unfilled. According to the most recent government figures, which are six years old and probably too low, one baby is born suffering opioid withdrawal every 25 minutes in the US. They are delivered in agonising pain, their bodies stiff and feverish, their cries unnaturally high-pitched. 

What future is there for the children whose parents do not fit into Trump’s vision for a restored America? Those whose parents are undocumented, and who now face a heightened risk of deportation? Those born to Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who have been stripped of their protected status and may now be sent home? Or for Americans born to those known as Dreamers, who were brought to the US illegally as children but who may soon lose their work rights and protection from deportation.

There were also other babies born this past year who deserve America’s protection but have not received it. A few weeks ago, I got in touch with a Yazidi man with whom I had worked in Iraq. His older brothers had resettled in America under a visa programme for Iraqis who worked as translators for the US military. My friend could have applied under the same scheme, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave his homeland. Then, in 2014, Islamic State rampaged through his village, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women and girls. When we met in 2016, he was living near a refugee camp and waiting for his visa to be processed.

 We had lost contact for many months, and I wanted to know if he had managed to make it to the US before Trump came to power, with his travel bans and slashing of refugee resettlement quotas. He hadn’t. He emailed me photographs of his first child, a daughter the same age as mine. I think of them often, the sad, kind family whose lives are in limbo, and the girl born into a community almost destroyed by murderous religious zealots, and I can’t believe I was stupid and lazy enough to believe in the steady march of social progress. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

Show Hide image

Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.