Tag Archives: maternal death USA

Women’s bodies, women’s minds…

Women’s bodies, women’s minds… (updated 1/30/2013)

Lady Sybil, Downton Abbey

If you happened to catch Downton Abbey last night (warning, spoiler alert), you were no doubt reeling from the news of Lady Sybil’s very realistic death from eclampsia.

As many women know, pre-eclampsia is a rather miserable and dangerous complication of pregnancy that affects between 5-10% of pregnant women. The symptoms include high blood pressure and protein in the urine and can occur as early as the 20th week and as late as the days leading up to labor and delivery. Prompt treatment is an absolute necessity and if the fetus is at all viable, c-section is often the prescribed next step. Without treatment, women can develop seizures, changes in mental function, fluid in the lungs, blood disorders, severe liver disease and death.

In the case of Sybil, she began exhibiting signs at the end stage of her pregnancy and while she had been under the treatment of Dr. Clarkson, the local family doctor, her father, Lord Grantham insisted on bringing a “celebrity” doctor, Sir Philip, all the way from London to attend to the birth. Lady Grantham objected and insisted that Dr. Clarkson at least consult on Sybil’s case. Admittedly, Dr. Clarkson had misdiagnosed Matthew’s paralysis and Lavinia had died under his care, but when it came to the hours before the onset of labor when he began to suspect pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, he certainly knew his stuff and knew enough about Sybil’s state of mind to insist that she be taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Sir Philip, looking very droll indeed was dismissive of Dr. Clarkson’s concerns — waiving off Sybil’s obvious confused state as nothing more than normal pregnancy stuff. Lord Grantham, in his place as pater familia of course concurred, and let precious hours slip by and even as they welcomed the birth of Sybil and Thomas’ baby girl, what they did not see was Sybil’s fall into more precarious health until she finally died in the throes of her uncontrollable seizures.


That was a lot!

More to the point, decisions about women’s health portrayed as beholden to a patriarchal order with the wealthy, (white) male gentry at the top of the pyramid, still seems all to familiar circa 2013.

It was, after all, during the 2012 election cycle that we were treated to then Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “discussion” of a woman’s “right to chose” in the case of rape:

“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

And as late as two weeks ago, a Republican, Phil Gingrey of Georgia, an OB/GYN, in speaking about Todd Akin, said:

“What he meant by legitimate rape was just look, someone can say I was raped: a scared-to-death 15-year-old that becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents, that’s pretty tough and might on some occasion say, ‘Hey, I was raped.’”

“That’s what he meant when he said legitimate rape versus non-legitimate rape. I don’t find anything so horrible about that.”

Okay, so I’ve hit into two huge issues here, but if we ratchet it back a bit to say … women boxing in skirts … where are we really?

Member of the Polish National Woman's Boxing Team in a Skirt

Member of the Polish National Woman’s Boxing Team in a Skirt

The AIBA “examined” the issue for a year and a half and after a huge uproar cheated their way out of the controversy last winter by stipulating that each country’s national team could “chose” whether to mandate shorts or skirts for its female athletes while their male athletes would continue to wear shorts only.

Light Heavyweight in a men's gladiator skirt.

Light Heavyweight in a men’s gladiator skirt.

You might laugh at the latter, but there certainly are a lot of men boxing in skirts–albeit they are called “gladiator” skirts which makes them “male” versus the “female” kind of skirt that doesn’t actually have open slats, except of course, when they do.  Hmmm…

Melissa Hernandez v. Jelena Mrdjenovich in Gladiator Skirts! Credit:  Rob T Sports Photography/ Rob Trudeau

Melissa Hernandez v. Jelena Mrdjenovich in Gladiator Skirts! Credit: Rob T Sports Photography/ Rob Trudeau

As for the female “mental” state, back in the 1950s not one, but two of my aunts (one on each side) were sent to mental institutions in their late teens for some version of “hysteria.”The Snake Pit

Digging deeper it seems both were hipster gal’s circa 1956 who were enamored with art, smoking reefer and sex with boys (not to mention that one was a teen mom — more later): solution, off to the nut house for shock treatments for their anti-social behavior.

It’s no wonder then that when I was nine and caught site of The Snake Pit on channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie, I was truly terrified. It gave me nightmares for weeks on end, not the least of which was the thought the I could be taken away too if I acted “funny.”

Downton Abbey, 3:4, Sybil's DeathWatching the fictional Grantham’s in action last night I began to ask myself, are we really so different than the tableau of shock and surprise at Lady Sybil’s sudden death.

Afterall, we live in a world where 700+ women die each day in childbirth. And no, that doesn’t necessarily happen here, but given the decisions that are made with respect to providing prenatal care to poor women, the statistics certainly give us pause.

In the United States the statistics as of 2010 are 12.7 deaths out of every 100,000 births. Among African-American women that statistic jumps to 34.8 deaths per 100,000. In New York City that translates into an appalling statistic:  eight African-American women die for every Caucasian woman.

And people wonder why Obama’s Affordable Care Act is so important — get it! Reproductive and prenatal care from contraception to post-natal checkups will actually be covered for all women beginning in 2014.

Throw the problems of the Grantham’s former maid Ethel into the mix (kicked out after getting pregnant by a rich cad, turning to prostitution to keep her son fed, and finally giving him up in order for him to have a better life), including the utter meanness of her peers and we have a picture that can also rival the present.  Seen Teen Mom lately?

In sum, not a very pretty picture at nearly 100 years in advance of the Downton Abbey storyline where yes, yes, yes, women in the United States have made extraordinary strides that includes, just last week, the decision to open combat roles to women in the Armed Forces, but as for things like pay equity, reproductive rights, equal protection under the law, violence against women, the medicalizing of women’s “natural” life changes, and the like, we have a long, long way to go.