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John Oliver takes U.S. — and Minnesota — to task for refusing to mandate paid maternity leave

Oliver singled out four Minnesota lawmakers for posting effusive Mother’s Day video messages despite voting last year against the state’s Women’s Economic Security Act.

As John Oliver pointed out with biting and brilliant humor on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” this past Sunday, it’s both astonishing and shameful that the United States is the only major country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave for its working women.

In fact, Canada and most of Europe and Central Asia provide a minimum of 26 weeks of paid leave for new mothers.

The United States does have laws that guarantee unpaid maternity leave, but even those laws apply to only about 40 percent of women in the U.S. work force. Furthermore, many, many women, particularly those toiling in low-wage jobs, cannot afford to take much unpaid leave.

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Oliver singled out some Minnesota lawmakers — in particular, Republican Sens. Dan Hall, Paul Gazelka, Roger Chamberlain and Brandon Petersen — for posting effusive Mother’s Day video messages despite voting last year against the Women’s Economic Security Act, which expanded unpaid maternity leave from six to 12 weeks as well as other workplace protections for women.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Oliver said. “You can’t go on and on about how much you love mothers, and then fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them.”

Health consequences

Oliver’s piece focuses on the economic and physical burdens that new mothers endure in the U.S. because of the country’s regressive approach to maternal leave. But this is not only an economic issue. Maternal leave (and that includes leave prior to delivery, too) is also an important public health issue. 

Here are a just a few reasons why:

  • Pregnant women who take no leave before their baby’s birth are nearly four times more likely to deliver by cesarean section than women who take pre-natal leave. They are also more likely to give birth prematurely and to deliver babies who are small for their gestational age.
  • Women need time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth — even if they aren’t among the 50,000 U.S. women each year who experience serious health complications during pregnancy. (In fact, one in five pregnant women in the U.S. are advised to spend a minimum of one week on bed rest or to severely restrict their activities in other ways during the course of their pregnancy.) Studies have found, not surprisingly, that new mothers who take more than 12 weeks of leave have less fatigue and anxiety — and much more energy.
  • Research also suggests that extended maternal leave reduces the risk of postpartum depression. A 2013 study that followed 800 new Minnesota mothers reported that at six weeks, 12 weeks or six months after delivering their child, the mothers who hadn’t returned to work were significantly less likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression.
  • Going back to work too soon is a significant barrier for breastfeeding. Although the Affordable Care Act has introduced policies that (on paper, at least) make pumping and storing breast milk at work easier, only about half of U.S. babies are being fed breast milk at six months — the minimum length of time recommended by health officials to ensure the best health possible for the baby. Research has found that mothers who take less than six weeks of maternity leave are four times more likely to stop breastfeeding after returning to work than those mothers who did not return to work.

You can watch John Oliver’s segment on U.S. maternal leave (or, rather, the lack of it) above. His discussion about Minnesota’s lawmakers begins  at the 8:55-minute mark.