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With Hospitals Reaching Breaking Point, Pregnant People Face Additional Uncertainty During Pandemic

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Image Credit: Chris Martino/Flickr

New York hospitals cannot force pregnant people to give birth without a chosen support person. That’s what an executive order released by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Sunday revealed. The order comes in response to a move by the NewYork-Presbyterian and the Mount Sinai hospital systems to bar partners from labor and delivery rooms, causing widespread outrage. But how are pregnant people coping with new hospital guidelines and uncertain conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic? We speak with freelance journalist Amy Littlefield, who focuses on the intersection of religion and healthcare, about what she is confronting now at the end of her pregnancy. Her piece for Insider is “I’m nine months pregnant, and I’m bringing my baby into a world I no longer understand. I have to remain hopeful anyway.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with co-host Juan González speaking to us from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And now we’re going to talk about a different kind of delivery. “I’m nine months pregnant, and I’m bringing my baby into a world I no longer understand. I have to remain hopeful anyway,” writes journalist Amy Littlefield in a new piece for Insider. Her baby is due Sunday.

Amy Littlefield recently joined us from her home in Boston, Massachusetts, and I spoke to her before Governor Andrew Cuomo here in New York released an executive order Saturday saying hospitals could not force pregnant people to give birth without a chosen support person, the order coming in response to a move by both NewYork-Presbyterian and the Mount Sinai hospital systems to bar partners from labor and delivery rooms, causing widespread outrage even in this pandemic. A petition opposing the ban gathered over 600,000 signatures. So this was the context in which we spoke. And Amy Littlefield is a part of the Democracy Now! family, a former Democracy Now! producer. Again, her baby is due on Sunday. I asked her about the reality she’s confronting now at the end of her pregnancy

AMY LITTLEFIELD: First of all, giving birth in the United States, let’s just say, it can be a terrifying experience in the best of times. I mean, we have the highest maternal mortality rate among wealthy nations. And we — you know, even with insurance, people often, on average, end up paying more than $4,500 out of pocket for their delivery. These were predictable failures that my partner and I have thought about before we decided to have our first child. And because I’m a journalist who reports on reproductive healthcare, I have thought a lot about these issues. But, of course, we failed to factor in, you know, plans for a global pandemic threatening to shut down the healthcare system just a few weeks before my due date.

AMY GOODMAN: So, about all your plans, take us through just — I mean, you planned this so carefully, and all your hopes, your dreams, your birth plan, what you were going to do, and how you’ve been forced to cope at this point.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: I mean, we had — you know, I had controlled my anxiety around the unpredictability that’s built into birth, by planning every single aspect of it that I could. We were touring hospitals before I was even pregnant. I was interrogating the tour guides about whether they had nitrous oxide machines and how many birth tubs did they have. And the people who were actually pregnant were just like, “Where do I park my car?” And so, we read all the books. We hired a doula, because we know that the evidence shows having a doula really increases people’s — you know, decreases chances of having interventions like C-sections and creates a more positive experience for people giving birth. So, we were so —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what a doula is, Amy.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: A doula is somebody who is an emotional support person who’s an expert in things like helping you find comfortable positions, in massage, in advocating for people among healthcare providers, helping people make informed decisions. They’re really there to provide the emotional support, as well as the expertise, you know, during labor. And there’s just a huge body of evidence showing that they increase positive outcomes and decrease the need for birth interventions. And so, we felt that was a crucial part of our care, and we were privileged to be able to afford that.

As little as two weeks ago, our midwife was still assuring us that our doula could be with us during our birth. And a few days later, that had changed. And like so many people in my situation around the country right now, we were told that our doula couldn’t be with us. The hospital was restricting visitors to only one, which meant only my partner would be there. My family wouldn’t be able to visit. And now seeing what’s happening with NewYork-Presbyterian, of course, we’re afraid that my partner might not even be allowed into the delivery room, and we’re having to think about what that could look like.

AMY GOODMAN: Even before, talking about how you stayed fit and healthy going to yoga, how did those yoga classes change with pregnant people?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Well, I mean, I think, like so many people, there’s, you know, so many of us over the last few weeks, things are changing so quickly, and there’s a moment when you realize the world is different. And for me, that came just under two weeks ago, I guess, when I went to my regular prenatal yoga class that I relied on to deal with those, you know, crazy aches and pains that can come with pregnancy. And usually it’s packed, and I walked in, and there was one other person there, and then one other person joined us. And as trivial as it might seem, that was sort of the moment that I knew that the world was changing and that something that had felt like sort of this distant threat was now about to disrupt our lives in a big way. And pretty soon after that, my partner and I made the decision to stop leaving the house, except to walk our dog, because we really didn’t want either of us to get sick before delivery.

AMY GOODMAN: But you did have some friends in about a week ago.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: We did. We had on, not — the Friday the 13th, so not this most recent Friday, but the one before, we had friends over to bring us some groceries. And, you know, I let them into the house. I felt so buoyed by their visit and happy to see them. We kept several feet away. And several hours later, one of the friends texted me to say they were running a fever and body aches. And we just panicked, I mean, rubbed down everything we thought they had touched with bleach and jumped in the shower, dragged our dog in with us, washed her from head to toe, which she was pretty baffled by. And I just remember standing there thinking, “Please give me more time. I’m not ready to give birth in this moment. I don’t even understand what’s happening.”

AMY GOODMAN: And you then talk about losing your doula, because she won’t be able to be in the delivery room.


AMY GOODMAN: And now the question of whether your partner will be able to join you. You’re about a week or two behind New York. In New York, the NewYork-Presbyterian has apparently made this decision, announcing on Sunday it would no longer allow visitors for patients giving birth, including allowing partners to be present during childbirth, even though the World Health Organization has said that all pregnant people, including those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections, should have the right to have a chosen companion present during labor. So, what does this bring up for you? What are you thinking now in these last weeks before you give birth? Or it could be hours, of course, because you’re at 38.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Could be. Could happen right now. I mean, it’s — the idea of giving birth without my partner there to comfort me, to advocate for me, to share in what should be the happiest moment of our lives, is kind of unfathomable to me. And my heart breaks for the people who are going through that right now at NewYork-Presbyterian, who are having to give birth without a partner, any family member, any support person there with them, just totally alone, I mean, what can be a terrifying experience if it feels like it’s out of your control.

It has prompted us to think about switching to a home birth at the last minute, which legions of people are doing right now. I mean, apparently the home birth midwives are just getting inundated with requests, last-minute requests, from people like me, who are two weeks away from their due date and afraid to contemplate going into a hospital, afraid that all their autonomy will be taken away or that the hospitals will just be so inundated that it won’t be safe to give birth there. And, you know, I spoke with my doula yesterday about the possibility of a home birth, and she said, “Look, this is really something that you shouldn’t do out of fear, because you’ll open the door to trauma. You should do it out of confidence that it’s something that you want and it’s the right decision for you.” And I just — when I got off the phone with her, I just burst into tears, because how — I mean, how can any of us who are facing this decision think about making it out of anything but fear in this moment? I mean, the fear of being separated from our partners in that moment is absolutely what’s driving this. And so —

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean, a home birth? But what would that involve? I mean, it’s a whole different trajectory, of course.


AMY GOODMAN: And you are doing this, and people plan for this for a long time.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re doing this in a few days, if you were to do it.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Right, right. I mean, first of all, it costs thousands and thousands of dollars. It’s just not an option for many people, because it’s generally not covered by insurance. So, that’s not something we had planned or budgeted for. Secondly, you know, you have to think about turning your home into an impromptu delivery room. You have to think about meeting a care provider that you’ve never met before, that you would have to build trust with very quickly. And I don’t think that with so little time to plan it, it’s actually — I don’t know whether it’s less scary or more scary to do that than to think about going into a hospital, which is a complete unknown at this point. We just don’t know what the medical system in Boston will look like two weeks from now.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about, in your piece, how your grandmother is in failing health but was so excited, 100 years old, to be able to hold her little grandchild.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yeah, yeah. And that’s what’s been keeping her going. She’s told me that. So, her nursing home is basically shut down to visitors, which is right. They should do that. And I would not contemplate visiting her right now. But I don’t know how long it will be and whether she has that much time, you know, to be able to meet her great-grandchildren. And so many people I know are in my position and facing these very same choices, painful choices.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your a piece about your parents and what you have — since everything was so perfectly planned, your thoughts about them coming into the hospital and what you would reveal to them.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yes. We’ve been keeping the name and the baby’s presumed sex secret through the whole pregnancy. We’ve worked very hard to guard that. And I had just really looked forward to that moment in the hospital room when they would get to meet their grandchild and when we would reveal that information to them. And it’s not going to happen that way. I don’t know when it will happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they can’t come into the hospital, you know.


AMY GOODMAN: You don’t know if your partner will be able to join you.


AMY GOODMAN: But then, afterwards, given all of the issues of social distance.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And it’s — I mean, it’s heartbreaking. I’m hearing in online communities, and I’ve heard from so many other people who are pregnant, about the very painful decision-making of, you know, pushing family away for safety in a moment where you expected to hold them close and to be with them and to just treasure, you know, the moments you never get back, the first moments of a child’s life. It’s really tough, and we’re trying not to — we haven’t made any final decisions about that yet, because everything is changing day to day, and we just don’t know what the world will look like in a few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Amy, as you always do during the most difficult circumstances, you always manage to find rays of hope. And I’m wondering what is sustaining you right now and what you’re seeing outside and inside, since you are self-isolating. What is giving you the most hope right now?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: I mean, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to give birth, right? Or so I’ve been told. And I’m trying to summon that energy and not sink into despair, which is difficult, because, you know, how do you contemplate the fact that we are facing a situation where as many as 1.7 million people could die in this country, and it could have — many of those deaths could have been prevented if our government had acted fast enough? How do you contemplate what’s about to happen in the prisons, in the immigrant detention centers and among the homeless population as this virus spreads? How do you — I mean, for me, it’s how do I think about having to explain this to a child, and I think it’s very easy to sink into despair and feel like the world is a terrifying place. And what’s been pulling me back from that is just seeing all of these beautiful examples of mutual support.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Amy Littlefield, independent journalist, former Democracy Now! producer, now documenting her own journey giving birth. We’ll link to her article, “I’m nine months pregnant, and I’m bringing my baby into a world I no longer understand. I have to remain hopeful anyway.” Shortly after Amy spoke to us, she got a call from her health provider saying her partner could not attend her prenatal visit at 38 weeks in the midst of the pandemic. He joined the appointment by phone. And this news: Today, her little sister is in the hospital in the very beginning of labor — their parents about to have their first two grandchildren, though they won’t be able to go to the hospital for each to meet them.

When we come back, well, it’s April 1st. Tenants are calling for rent to be canceled. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths. Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Andy died of cancer last week at the age of 75.

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