Drive down a Missouri highway, and you will not be distracted by any scenic vistas. No dramatic mountain range, no lovely rolling hills, no lush forest or glistening coastline. It’s a good thing too, because if there was anything see in the way of landscape, your view would be utterly blocked by billboards.
Miles and miles of billboards.
If those billboards are to be believed, there are 5 things that the good citizens of Missouri care about. They are as follows:
-Cars (credit pre-approved!)
And, in particular, how Jesus feels about guns and unborn babies. Note, this set of values is not unique to Missouri and is, in many ways, a snapshot of the value system that runs through much of middle America and the south. Within such value system, one should note, “Unborn” is often the operative word. Because, like the billboards themselves, the resources and collective voice of the state are committed to one thing–just making sure the child is born.
Concern for that child’s continued well-being, postpartum, is of secondary concern. Of even less concern: the health of the mother.
As you may know, America has the highest pregnancy mortality rate of any developed country in the world. Most of those maternal deaths are preventable. And many of them happen in the state of Missouri. There are many factors at work–rates of obesity and smoking, for instance, run higher there, and so the risk to mothers is greater. But the bottom line is, many mothers die of preventable complications because they lack access to prenatal care. A large percentage (about 26%) of pregnant women in Missouri are uninsured. Beyond that, there are 67 counties in the state that do not have a single OB/GYN in the area.
The following data appeared in the Kansas City Star yesterday:
The United Health Foundation’s 2016 Health of Women and Children Report pegged the national average at about 19.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, while Missouri’s maternal mortality rate was 28.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, which ranked 42nd nationally. Kansas clocked in at 19.6 and states like California (5.9) and Massachusetts (5.8) were well under double digits.
Missouri’s rate is about on par with Belize, and worse than poorer countries like Moldova (23) and Costa Rica (25), according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
This means, on the one hand, that there are 7 states in the union where the statistics are even more depressing. 7 more states where women die for want of basic care, 7 states where babies are born to a world without their mother in it. And many states–Missouri included– where the rates of mortality are actually CLIMBING, even as the rest of civilization manages to drive them down.
It is unsurprising that the states with the highest frequency of maternal death are among the most conservative; among the poorest; and among the most likely to push legislation that limits women’s access to contraception and prenatal care. Those laws are the product of the same rhetoric that shames women into having babies, regardless of their access to resources that would keep them healthy during pregnancy, and help them care for those babies long term.It’s not just ironic. It is reprehensible. This criminal lack of care for women is just one layer of a larger system that seeks to control women’s bodies, often at the expense of women’s lives. For my book, “Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality,” I interviewed an OB/GYN who practices at UMKC. She told me some horrific facts about laws designed to manipulate pregnant women; specifically, laws dictating what a doctor must tell a patient who’s considering an abortion. In many cases, physicians have a “script” to follow that includes strong ideological bias, and with no scientific evidence to support it. For instance: if a patient is considering terminating a pregnancy, the doctor is required to tell her that having an abortion will increase her risk of breast cancer.
This isn’t true. But it’s in the script.
At some point, we have traded in quality medical care for a cheap billboard message. We’ve sacrificed information and empowerment and support for shame and manipulation. Our laws allow it. Our churches encourage it. And it is literally killing women in our own neighborhoods.
That great highway of billboards proclaims a culture that values a “sanctity of life.” But in reality, the only thing it sanctifies is chastity. A pregnancy carried to term, come hell or high water, and regardless of what life might be like for that mother and baby down the road.
During this season of Advent, Christians claim to be waiting on a miraculous birth; a sacred life that will change the world. Many of those same Christians engage this endless moral posturing about the sanctity of all life–while systematically withholding the care that would safely bring life into the world. While I could get mad about this imbalance at any given time, I’m especially mindful right now of a certain young mother…
One who was young, and poor, and scared. But one who, nonetheless, had access to resources that many women in modern day America don’t have. Mary had the midwifing wisdom of the older women in her family; she had a husband who cared for her, and looked after her needs; she had a safe place to stay. And, not for nothing, a band of angels hovering o’er her, as the carols would tell it, to sing praises and probably bring her some ice chips, if it came to that.
And I can’t help but wonder: if Mary were a single pregnant teenager in rural Missouri, would she have lasted the night? Or would she have bled out in some cold one bedroom apartment? Would she have been able to sing her baby to sleep? Or would she have died of some infection, easily treated in a hospital that she just couldn’t get to?
We could wonder all day. The fact is, somewhere in America, this very day, the love of God incarnate is trying to enter the world; and his mother will not live to hold him. Until we figure out how to fix that, our billboards cannot proclaim the sanctity of anything.
For all the warm fuzzy songs we sing about mother and baby resting comfortably through the night, the one stuck in my head today goes more like this:
Treats me mean, too
But that’s how things are done down here
We didn’t know it was you…