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Misleading Claims Paint a False World Narrative on Reproductive Rights

Dina Faisal Dina Faisal
30th March 2021
Misleading Claims Paint a False World Narrative on Reproductive Rights

New Zealand is the latest country to offer paid bereavement leave following a miscarriage at any time during pregnancy. The global media has heralded New Zealand, leading many readers to believe that it is the first country to adopt such laws. Credible sources such as The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times have covered the story with misleading headlines. To celebrate this news without recognizing that numerous other countries have already enacted similar policies creates a false sense that feminism and reproductive rights are pioneered only by Western countries. 

The reality is that many developing, non-Western countries have even stronger laws compared to their Western counterparts. Recent headlines discredit the efforts made by these countries, especially developing countries that are most impacted by gender inequality. Placing more value on Western countries' progressive laws and failing to recognize and celebrate those of other countries, paints a false world narrative. Nonetheless, media traction surrounding this story has sparked an important conversation on miscarriage leave. Is it a standard part of reproductive rights?

New Zealand joins India, the Philippines, South Africa, Nicaragua, Panama, Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation, Mauritius, Indonesia, and Denmark, amongst others, to varying degrees. Essentially indistinguishable from human rights, reproductive rights ensure that couples and individuals have the freedom to make their own choices regarding family planning. They also ensure that couples have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive healthcare. Reproductive health, respect for bodily integrity, and sexual health are all components of reproductive rights. Therefore, they would address issues ranging from miscarriages to female genital mutilation (FGM), to child marriages, to discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

A miscarriage is the loss of a fetus before the 20th week of pregnancy. It occurs in approximately 10–25 percent of all pregnancies, making it a common early pregnancy complication. Physical recovery may take weeks or more, with often longer mental and emotional impacts. The physical symptoms can include vaginal bleeding, back pain, and sore breasts, while the emotional impact can include anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The psychological impact of miscarriage is sometimes overlooked because miscarriage is common. In a study of 650 women by The Imperial College London and KU Leuven, 29% showed symptoms of PTSD one month after pregnancy loss, declining to 18% after nine months. Because the impact of a miscarriage can be very severe, it needs to be addressed with relevant legal policies.

Many countries have very progressive laws surrounding bereavement leave after a miscarriage. These include India’s Maternity Benefit Act 1961, The Philippines’ Republic Act No. 11210, and South Africa’s Basic Conditions of Employment Act No. 75 of 1997, which all offer paid leave in cases of miscarriage at any time during the pregnancy. A report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Maternity and Paternity At Work describes how Nicaragua and Panama also permit paid leave depending on the woman’s needs. For “abnormal” births, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation also grant postnatal leave. In the event of a miscarriage, Mauritius offers two weeks of leave, and Indonesia provides one-and-a-half months, while Denmark offers 14 weeks. The United Kingdom entitles its citizens to a combination of bereavement leave, maternity leave, and statutory maternity pay only if the loss is before the 24th week. If it occurs afterward, there are no maternity entitlements. On the weaker side of laws, the U.S. offers no paid leave in the case of miscarriages at all. If required, an employee may use paid sick leave or take unpaid leave, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If the miscarriage substantially limits a significant life activity, disability leave may be used, although a miscarriage is not a disability. 

Forcing a woman to return to work immediately following a miscarriage can deteriorate the woman’s emotional health. There needs to be time off to deal with the physical ailments and the feelings of loss, anger, guilt, and anxiety. In the long term, this makes her more emotionally stable and improves overall wellbeing and productivity. There needs to be a focus on adopting paid miscarriage leave for countries that are behind. Also, more substantial efforts are required to implement these laws and ensure they are used when needed without fear of repercussions or discrimination.