America is the worst rich country in the world to be a mother. 2020 could change that

Female presidential candidates are pushing issues such as reproductive rights, maternal mortality, parental leave and childcare to the front of the political agenda.

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America is the worst country in the developed world to be a mother. I do not make this claim lightly, but what other conclusion can you draw knowing that more women die during childbirth in the US than in any other rich, industrialised nation? That infant mortality rates are so high that women in the US are more likely to lose their baby in the first year of its life than mothers in any other developed country? That America is the only rich country not to guarantee its citizens paid parental leave? After all, only New Guinea, Suriname, and a few Pacific island nations share US policymakers’ view that a new mother could be compelled to return to her job while her stiches are still healing, her breasts are still swollen and engorged, and her baby is utterly helpless.

Still not convinced? Consider that the cost of childcare in the US is among the highest found in the rich, developed countries of the OECD, costing over a quarter of household income. The situation is bleaker still for single mothers, who in the US spend over half of their income on childcare. As in many other countries, single mothers are one of the poorest demographics in America. Unlike in many other wealthy countries, mothers are routinely incarcerated as a direct result of their poverty. Despite being home to just 5 per cent of the world’s population, the US accounts for almost 30 per cent of the world’s incarcerated women; 80 per cent of women in jail are mothers, most of them have not been convicted of any crime and simply can’t afford bail.

Then consider the concerted attack on abortion rights in the US – the steady, decades-long chipping away at women’s ability to access abortion through funding squeezes and onerous regulations, and the radical abortion bans introduced this year that aim to overturn women’s constitutional right to an abortion. Almost six in ten women who obtain abortions in the US are already mothers, but abortion bans will also create a new generation of women who have been forced into motherhood and are physically, emotionally and financially unprepared.

A woman president, whether she is a mother or not, is no guarantee that America will address this national shame. But the 2020 Democratic field, which includes six women, is showing promising signs of taking these issues more seriously and committing to fix the problems that the 45 male presidents of the United States have left unresolved. Together the female 2020 candidates are helping shift the perception that maternal mortality, parental leave and early childcare are not marginal “women’s issues” but urgent national ones.

Take Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate who frequently talks about her own struggles to find suitable childcare when her children were young. “I stand before you today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a cooperative toddler,” she joked during her 2020 announcement speech – and several times after.

In February, Warren unveiled an ambitious proposal for universal subsidised childcare, which would be free for parents earning less than 200 per cent of the federal poverty level and capped at 7 per cent of household income. Her childcare pledge was quickly seized upon by several other candidates, who are not so “plan”-driven but recognised the potential popularity of proposals to cut the burden of early childcare.

Warren also has a plan for reducing maternal mortality rates, by offering financial incentives to hospitals that are successfully tackling the issue. And she has proposed protecting women’s reproductive rights by calling on Congress to pass legislation guaranteeing abortion rights even if Roe v Wade is overturned.

The New York senator and 2020 hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand also talks publicly about her own experiences as a mother. She has described herself as a “young mom” who would fight “for other people’s kids as hard as I fight for my own” and is distinguishing herself by making pro-family, pro-women policies a prominent part of her campaign.

Like Warren, she has been quick to champion women’s abortion rights as they come under threat from anti-abortion extremists, saying that she would codify Roe v Wade into law, would ban private insurers from refusing to cover abortions and would fund family planning clinics across the country. One of her central policy proposals is a Family Bill of Rights, which aims to tackle maternal mortality, creates national paid parental leave, ensures that all children are automatically enrolled in the government’s child health insurance programme at birth, introduces universal pre-kindergarten education, subsidises childcare through tax credits and even sends a Finnish-style “baby bundle” to all new parents.

Then there’s Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota running for president, who has said she was first inspired to run for office after her child was born with serious health problems and yet she was forced to leave the hospital 24-hours after giving birth. One of the first things she did was pass legislation guaranteeing new mums and babies a 48-hour hospital stay.

Californian senator Kamala Harris has told voters that her step-children call her “Momala” and has said that as president she would make equal pay mandatory, would require states to obtain justice department approval before implementing abortion restrictions and would introduce a maternal care act aimed at reducing maternal mortality rates.

“The tight knot for women in politics (and perhaps in life) has been, will always be, this: Everything associated with motherhood has been coded as faintly embarrassing and less than — from mom jeans to mommy brain to the Resistance. And yet to be a bad mom has been disqualifying, and to not be a mom at all is to be understood as lacking something: gravity, value, femininity,” writes Rebecca Traister in New York Magazine.

Despite these limitations, Warren, Gillibrand, Klobuchar and Harris are turning motherhood into a powerful political tool, using their personal stories to help push policies that have been overlooked for too long. Their proposals have a knock-on effect, forcing other candidates to respond and match their ideas. As Michelle Ruiz observes in Vogue, it’s a measure of how much the politics of pregnancy and childcare have been overlooked that Gillibrand and her co-sponsor Rosa DeLauro introduced her Family Act in 2013, 3015 and 2017 and on all three occasions it failed to even make it out of committee. Next time, she might expect to have better luck.

It might be too early to declare the 2020 frontrunners, and it would certainly be foolhardy to assume that a Democrat, let alone a Democratic woman, will unseat Trump next year. But one might hope, at least, that once issues such as maternal health, paid parental leave and crippling childcare costs enter the political mainstream they will stay there. These problems are too big, and too pressing, to ignore.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.