by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Did you know that a child born in Costa Rica today is expected to live longer than an American child born today? Or that a woman is 50 percent more likely to die in childbirth in the U.S. than in Europe? 

Those facts are included in Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed this week about the state of healthcare in America — a depressing and appalling assessment that says much about our country’s priorities.

"The U.S. now spends far more on medical care (more than $7,000 per person) than other nations, yet our infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate and longevity are among the worst in the industrialized world," writes Kristof. "If we had as good a child mortality rate as France, Germany and Italy, we would save 12,000 children a year."

Our present pro-life government has not only clamped down on providing necessary information about family planning and safe sex, but it has also managed to preside over a higher infant mortality rate than some developing nations — thanks to diminished access to healthcare for women and children. Abortion may be legislated out of existence, but carry the baby to term and you and/or your child might die. What’s going on here?

As for healthcare coverage, consider this scenario, which left even Kristof in shock:

The student winner I’ve chosen to accompany me on a reporting trip to Africa next month is a superb medical school student named Leana Wen. She receives her M.D. this month, and will research health care access this summer at a Washington think tank.

I asked Leana about her health insurance coverage, just in case she catches leprosy on the Africa trip.

"Actually, I was going to become one of the 45 million uninsured for the summer," she said. "The think tank does not provide insurance for ‘temporary’ employees, and my school did not allow extension of health insurance post-graduation. I still haven’t found a reasonably priced insurance plan for this period."

Aaaaargh! When a newly minted doctor investigating Americans’ access to medical care has no insurance — then you know that our health care system is truly bankrupt.

Indeed. Consider this other fact Kristof mentions: "Over all, a person without insurance is less likely to have diseases diagnosed early, less likely to get routine preventive care — and faces a 25 percent greater chance of dying early."

Kristof’s op-ed, which addresses universal coverage as well as the need for more public health programs focusing on prevention, is unfortunately available only through TimesSelect, but a robust discussion on his blog is available to all readers. (And here’s a follow-up from Leana Wen).

My concern about maternal health extends to all reproductive health issues and, as we all know, access to safe and legal care is very much driven by where you live these days. Last month, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced that he plans to submit a bill called the "Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act" that will update state laws concerning reproductive rights. New York was the second state to legalize abortion (in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade), but new legislation is needed to ensure that the rights of women in New York aren’t left to the political will of Washington.

His comments were naturally greeted with great enthusiasm by women’s health advocates and feminist organizations, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union (both the governor’s comments and the responses he received can be read here).

Kudos to Spitzer. But while it’s great to see New York’s governor take a pro-active stance, how do we protect all of our sisters, mothers, daughters and granddaughters from the wrongheaded, ideology-driven co-opting of our right to safe healthcare? This is something I’d like to see discussed by the presidential candidates.

In fact, I wish we could challenge all those running for office to declare, as a first principle, finding a solution to our healthcare mess — for everyone.

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  • Gina May 24, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Healthcare is right up there with gun control in the contest for the most embarassing part about being an American. Both morally and politically, both should be no-brainers. But we continue to defy logic.
    The most mind-boggling example in terms of healthcare has to be veterans. How can someone not be able to put together a PR campaign that shames American into providing stellar healthcare for the people wounded when defending our country? If you can’t do that, good luck on getting across-the-board changes …