Women’s access to family planning and pregnancy health care formed the theme of the National Council of Jewish Women-Arizona Section’s annual luncheon.

A panel made up of activists and doctors discussed maternal mortality rates, reproductive rights and legislation that is curbing care for women dealing with both planned and unplanned pregnancies.

The United States has the highest maternal mortality rates of any other developed nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or birth-related causes every  year in the U.S.

Panelist Dr. Linda Chambliss, director of fetal medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, said the actual number is likely higher, especially among African American women, who die at three to four times the rate of Caucasian women. 

While homicide and suicide remain the greatest causes of death among pregnant women, Chambliss and her fellow panelists said natural causes such as hemorrhaging and hypertension are being neglected as laws aimed at curtailing access to contraceptives and abortion leave behind millions of pregnant women looking for health care.

“The laws, the strategy of the anti-abortion movement, are not just putting women who would attempt to terminate their pregnancies at risk, they also are punishing women who want to carry to term because everyone is suspect,” said Civia Tamarkin, a Valley filmmaker who directed “Birthright: A War Story,”  a 2017 documentary. “What they have done is manipulate and distort and misconstrue laws that are already on the books, like child protection and fetal protection laws, and they again have developed a slew of new laws that they are testing.”

Tamarkin cited the case of a Maryland woman who went into labor after eating a poppy-seed bagel. As a result, the woman tested positive for narcotic use and her baby was taken from her for five days.

“Because of these types of new laws that are coming up, women are not getting the prenatal care they need because they are afraid of being reported to authorities,” Tamarkin continued. “In Iowa, a woman tripped fell down a flight of stairs. When she went to the emergency room to make sure that her fetus was OK, she was reported because the doctors were mandatory child abuse reporters and she was jailed.”

Dr. Julie Baskin Kwatra of Arizona Women’s Care in Scottsdale serves as the legislative chairwoman of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

As a liaison to the to the Arizona Legislature, Kwatra said she has seen some alarming changes.

“We finally woke up around the late ’90s and early 2000s when we realized the attacks on reproductive health care and the impact on our practice of medicine,” she said. “ACOG has become very politically active They are now a political powerhouse on the national level and also at the state level.”

Kwatra adds her role may be one of the most difficult at ACOG, calling Arizona a “bad laboratory” where national attacks on reproductive rights originate.

“Arizona has the distinction of passing seminal laws that other states are going to copy,” she said, including laws that prevent access to birth control and sexually transmitted disease screening, but also affect how the state’s Department of Health Services writes its policies.

“Some of these laws are going to get to the U.S. Supreme Court. They are not just [going] to affect Arizona women; they’re also [going] to affect every woman in the nation.” JN 

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