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When Sexism is Deadly

Kathleen Reeves

Indifference to maternal mortality is closely related to indifference to women’s reproductive rights.

Nicholas Kristof takes a hard look at maternal and infant mortality through the case of one woman in Pakistan. He takes the woman’s family to task for refusing to take her to a hospital, and in doing so, criticizes the cultural mores in Pakistan that lead to the death of her baby. But the real targets of his criticism are the industrialized nations who have failed to make maternal and infant mortality a priority in their aid to poorer countries.

On the ignorance and negligence of her family members, Kristof writes:

The family discussed taking her to the hospital, but the obstacle was the 300 rupee taxi fare. . . . Shazia’s in-laws truly are poor, but it’s hard to imagine that they would have balked if it had been a man in the family who was in danger — or if they had known that Shazia was carrying a baby boy.

Indeed, Kristof believes that the larger neglect of maternal health is a product of sexism. After Shazia’s C-section, which is performed too late to save her son, Kristof visits the squalid hospital ward and talks to the woman’s husband:

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Outside, her husband, Allahdita, was grieving but philosophical. “It is God’s will,” he said, shrugging. “There is nothing we can do.”

That’s incorrect. If men had uteruses, “paternity wards” would get resources, ambulances would transport pregnant men to hospitals free of charge, deliveries would be free, and the Group of 8 industrialized nations would make paternal mortality a top priority. One of the most lethal forms of sex discrimination is this systematic inattention to reproductive health care, from family planning to childbirth — so long as those who die are impoverished, voiceless women.

It’s hard to argue with Kristof’s alternate reality. After all, in the reality we live in, erectile dysfunction drugs are covered by insurance, while hormonal contraception is not. Surely the society that pays for sexual performance drugs for men would also pay for their needs during pregnancy and childbirth.

Kristof touches on another, vital point when he mentions family planning. Indifference to maternal mortality is closely related to indifference to women’s contraceptive needs. A society that doesn’t value a woman’s right to control her fertility is not likely to support her needs and choices about childbirth and childrearing, either. While anti-choicers profess to care about babies and children, many in the movement have done little or nothing to elevate maternal health to a level of greater importance. The state of reproductive health—which includes everything from access to contraceptives in America to the right of a Pakistani woman to go to a hospital during a difficult labor—testifies to the fact that sexism is alive and well, here and abroad.