How well does the U.S. public health care system take care of pregnant people?

Published on
July 8, 2022

Few life events reveal so much strength and vulnerability as being pregnant, giving birth and nurturing a brand new human while rebuilding one’s self. And yet the United States so often fails to support people and families during those times when they most need help. 

As a health reporter and coordinating producer for polling at the PBS NewsHour, I want to explore the tension between the lofty expectations placed on pregnant and postpartum people and the grim realities in which they usually find themselves. 

After delivery, people are too often caught off-guard by the ways childbirth wrecks their bodies, and the health care system does not pick up the slack. A growing number of states are considering expanding Medicaid benefits to postpartum people from 60 days to 12 months after delivery — a move experts laud as helping reverse the nation’s dismal statistics in maternal mortality, which disproportionately affects communities of color. Those policies could lend more support to caregivers, but that’s not saying much in a country that lacks federal paid leave and where people often find themselves choosing between caring for loved ones and keeping their job

The nation’s safety net was not woven to catch these deeply human needs that often go overlooked. With the Supreme Court radically curtailing federal protections of abortion access this year, the debate over a pregnant person’s right to make decisions about their own body has erupted across the country. In statehouses, politicians have heightened restrictions on abortion services while rejecting postpartum extensions to Medicaid coverage, which pays for four out of 10 births nationwide. 

Through the rhetoric, questions have come into focus: How well does the U.S. public health care system take care of pregnant people? Through extensive reporting, I want to better understand how far politics go in separating the health of a pregnant person from that of the fetus they carry. Consistent health care coverage for an unborn child but not for the parent ultimately suggests a lack of concern about the health outcomes for both. With this project, under the auspices of the 2022 National Fellowship, my aim is to understand what happens when policies are designed to protect one party at the expense of another. 

Given the nation’s ongoing debate over abortion rights — despite national polls regularly suggesting a majority of Americans oppose draconian restrictions and bans on a person’s right to choose — this reporting will capture the context around what’s at stake for people who rely on their states for the health and wellness of themselves and their families.