There’s a lot being said by and about Charlotte Bellis, the pregnant woman stuck in Afghanistan and trying to get back to New Zealand. What I want to talk about here is not Bellis so much as the vulnerability of pregnant women and women’s human rights.
(Bellis’ own account and a statement from the government on the case and MiQ were in the Herald).
Firstly, women do the heavy lifting of keeping the human species going. We provide all the workers for the economy and society in general. We do so at risk to our bodies and health, and the rest of our lives. We also do most of the childrearing and associated activities. Nearly all of that is unpaid.
We don’t yet have universal human rights specific to our bodies, and that is because the default template for humans is still male in most societies. Think abortion, access to contraception, or even things like period products. Tools are often made to fit male bodies, university courses are designed around males needs (where is the free childcare? why isn’t breastfeeding normalised?), as is parliament, and medical research is still biased towards male as the norm.
In the West we are now being told that being female is largely irrelevant and that we have to share our hard won rights with gender dysphoric men, or those that want to use identity to escape the burdens of being male. Men identifying as women can now hold women’s positions in political parties, which puts our ability to further the political needs of women at risk.
The point here is to point to the fragility of women’s human rights. I also mention this aspect because of the similarities in misogyny in both responses to the Bellis case and in gender identity activism: it’s ok to hate women if you feel you have a good reason. In both cases this misogyny is often invisible to liberals. That these two paragraphs make me persona non grata in many liberal spaces is QED.
Meanwhile, in countries like Afghanistan, women have lost rights at an alarming rate in the past year thanks to the Taliban and the uselessness of the rest of the world in taking action.
Here are some statistics.
Maternal mortality rate by country: maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. NZ has nine deaths, and is ranked 36th, a still weirdly high number for a developed nation.
Ironically, Qatar also has nine maternal deaths. Qatar is the country that Bellis was resident and working in when she discovered her pregnancy and is the country she had to leave because it is illegal for women in Qatar to be pregnant and unmarried,
It is very important to be aware that it is illegal for an unmarried woman to be pregnant in Qatar. The consequences of the authorities discovering that a single woman is pregnant include jail and deportation, and even physical punishment (lashings) in some extreme circumstances.
For that reason, women who are not married and find themselves pregnant while living in Qatar should plan to head for home, or to another country. As a marriage certificate is required to have access to maternity care, even getting married after conception will not resolve the situation. Unmarried women who do leave Qatar due to becoming pregnant may also face problems if they return to Qatar after giving birth.
This is the country that some New Zealanders have been saying Bellis should have stayed in rather than throwing a tanty to get back to New Zealand.
Afghanistan, where Bellis currently resides because she had so few options, is ranked 177th and has 638 women dying for very 100,000 babies born. Bellis is a journalist who has been covering the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. In her piece in the Herald she said,
I thought about sending them a story I did in October at a maternity hospital in Kabul where they had no power so were delivering by cell phones at night. They couldn’t do caesarean deliveries and the only medicine they had were tabs of paracetamol wrapped in crinkled newspaper. The hospital staff said even those would run out in a month’s time. The UN wrote recently that they expect an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. Note “extra” – the total will be closer to 70,000.
Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence.
The rights that women have are often under pressure of being removed. Obviously with abortion rights in the United States for instance. Less obviously where funding for maternity services is lessened. Or in this case, not adequately protecting pregnant women overseas.
Bellis says her lawyer has represented 30 pregnant women who were refused entry to MiQ in New Zealand. We don’t know the details of most of those, but it’s clear from Bellis’ case that being pregnant is an insufficient reason to be granted emergency repatriation. However being pregnant in a country where there is little developed world maternity care is risky and it’s not hard to see how waiting until an acute emergency arises is a massive fail: you don’t want a woman with pre-eclampsia having to board multiple flights to get from the Middle East to a New Zealand hospital.
Twitter, as usual, succinctly,
Anyone who thinks you can pin down a date for when you will need medical assistance when you are pregnant has never been fucking pregnant
— Nicola (@coffeegirlNZ) January 30, 2022
The New Zealand MiQ system has all sorts of flaws that should have been sorted a long time ago. But this is a particular issue that strikes me as being more deeply embedded in values. Pregnant women should be given priority, and the degree of scorn and hate directed at Bellis in the past few days suggests we don’t actually value pregnant women that much. Bellis is apparently a moaning, over-privileged white woman who just happens to be pregnant, and our condemnation is more important than valuing pregnant women or upholding their rights.
Whereas I see a woman using her privilege to raise an issue that progressives should be yelling at the top of their voices about. Belli’s lawyer, Tudor Clee, at NewstalkZB,
It’s not only the expectant mothers we need to worry about either — it’s the one we’ve let down already.
“A New Zealand woman was told at the High Court she was not allowed to come back and give birth in New Zealand in spite of having an Australian hospital writing a one page letter saying she was suffering from severe anxiety, depression, and that the baby was underweight and it was essential for her to have support when her baby was born.
“Her application was denied… That baby is sitting in a NICU unit in Australia. And for that mother, she has no idea when she can even fly back.
“In the same week that decision was made, eight DJs were given a green light to fly to New Zealand,” he said.
“Women’s health has never been a priority in Aotearoa,” Clee said, “Women’s health has always been debatable.”
“Imagine it was an All Black who’s suffered an injury overseas and had the All Black doctor say they must come back to New Zealand and rehab here with their family. If a person with no medical qualifications reviewed the application and said, ‘no they can wait for an unspecified amount of time in whatever country they’re in’ — there would be immediate outrage.
“And yet with pregnant women, we have unqualified people directly overruling doctors, midwives, specialists, psychiatrists in all of the applications that I’ve dealt with.”
In October last year, Stuff reported there had been 229 MIQ applications involving pregnancy — and just 23 approved.
This is bog standard feminism. Women have human rights specific to their sex. Those rights aren’t yet universal and are often undermined even in places like New Zealand that is relatively advanced around feminism. It’s not been surprising to see left wing and liberal men in particular over the weekend prioritise accusations of privilege over the safety and well being of a pregnant woman and her baby. But it is nevertheless astounding and we should be paying attention to the emerging dynamic that it’s ok to hate women if they are wealthy (or white).
This is lefty/progressive/liberal misogyny. One of the arguments in recent days is what was Bellis’ doing in Afghanistan during the pandemic anyway? Well, until recently she was a senior producer in Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, so I assume she’s been doing her job. Is the point that no New Zealand journalists should be working overseas currently? Because I haven’t seen that said before. Or is it just the female ones. Or the apparently wealthy white female ones. These aren’t left wing or progressive values.
I’ve also seen it argued that MiQ is overrun and people need to wait in line, and for Bellis’ to stop complaining. We have an emergency queue for a reason, and if a woman pregnant in a country with poor maternity care doesn’t quality, then there is a big problem with that system.
All women deserve to be safe when pregnant. This includes having access to good maternity care. Pregnancy and childbirth are normal, healthy events, but if shit goes wrong you want help within easy reach. There’s a clear correlation between experiences of safety and birth outcomes. How a society treats its pregnant women and how advanced it is in terms of women’s rights generally is also an issue. Countries with good midwifery services (i.e. services that center the wellbeing of women) tend to be countries that treat women well in other ways.
There’s also a maxim that follows from that, which is that if you centre women in maternity care you get the best outcomes for women, infants and society at large. This is a challenge to neoliberal ideology that wants to see all humans as the same, and pregnant women are just people who happen to have this other thing going on. But it’s a kind of cultural insanity to believe that pregnant women don’t need specialised care and shouldn’t have rights specific to their bodies.
Charlotte Bellis’ story is here. Response from Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Head of MIQ Chris Bunny is at the bottom of the same link.
Bellis also posted an update on twitter this morning.
Note: if you want to comment on this post, please provide evidence for any claims of fact. This means an explanation of your point, appropriate quotes and links. This is doubly so for anything being said about Charlotte Bellis. You must provide support for your assertions at the time of commenting. Expect to be moderated if you don’t. This isn’t FB, nor a rumour mill, we have a high standard of debate expectation here. Robust debate is welcome. I will also moderate for overt sexism and misogyny.