New Zealand voted on Wednesday in favour of paid bereavement leave in the case of a miscarriage or stillbirth. The legislation would allow pregnant people and their partners to take paid time off work in the case of a miscarriage, which was already required of employers in the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth after 20 weeks or more. The new bill will extend these benefits to anyone who loses a pregnancy at any point in their pregnancy, rather than having to use sick leave.
"I felt that it would give women the confidence to be able to request that leave if it was required, as opposed to just being stoic and getting on with life, when they knew that they needed time, physically or psychologically, to get over the grief," Ginny Andersen, the Labour member of Parliament who drafted the bill, said.
As New Zealand prepares to pass the measure into law in the coming weeks, this more inclusive legislation should be an example for how other countries, like the UK and US, might handle paid leave for matters of reproductive and sexual health going forward.
The issue is not only medical but psychological as 29% of women who experienced early pregnancy loss after one month exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found. People who experience miscarriage or stillbirth should not have to rely on paid sick time during their healing process. Instead, reproductive health issues deserve their own labour policy so that individuals can have space to grieve and recover physically and emotionally from the loss before worrying about their return to work.
"The two most common things I see women for after a miscarriage is trauma, grief or both," Tessa Sugarbaker, a gynaecologist who now works as a therapist with people who have experienced pregnancy loss, told The Washington Post. "I think the trauma can come from feeling helpless that nothing could be done, from doctors not being sensitive to the experience of the woman, and from society not recognising it as a loss."
Of course, the United States is not the most progressive country with matters of reproductive health or labour rights. Since the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the landmark Supreme Court decision that protects the right to an abortion, there have been a number of cases where women were criminalised for having a miscarriage or stillbirth. Since Minnestota became the first state to pass a fetal homicide law in 1986, another 37 states had similar statutes on the books by 2018 as a result of the conservative Personhood Movement in response to Roe, according to ProPublica.
Further, both Arkansas and Michigan have additional laws on the books that criminalise alleged actions that might lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. The New York Times reports that in Arkansas, for example, five women have been criminalised and incarcerated for stillbirth or miscarriage, one as recently as 2016.
When an individual experiences a pregnancy loss, it's not enough for their workplace to offer condolences and flowers. Taking unpaid time off from work is not an option for many, and paid leave policies that don't prioritise matters of reproductive health will always disproportionately harm low-wage workers and people of colour. And it's long past time for sweeping changes to both labor laws in the US and the UK that protect the rights of pregnant people, and a more just vision of reproductive and sexual health.
"We hear from women, low-wage women in particular, who are often a complicated pregnancy away from losing their job," Dina Bakst, co-founder of A Better Balance, told TODAY. Bakst added, "I think there's a growing recognition in America that people have health needs and they need job-protected time off."