ONTD Political

In Defense of the French Health System: Having a Baby in Paris

10:54 am - 10/01/2009

In Defense of the French Health System: Having a Baby in Paris

By Carolyn Forché

As the U.S. Senate struggles to produce health-care reform legislation that can win the votes of 60 members, cost issues rise to the forefront of the debate. Poet Carolyn Forché’s experience suggests that universal access to health care is not only the right thing to do morally but financially as well.


September 29, 2009

In 1986, our right to live in the Republic of South Africa was terminated by the apartheid state, and we left on a flight for Paris, France. I was eight months’ pregnant. I remember the wheels tucking into the belly of the plane, and re-fueling in Madagascar, and the long journey that brought us to Paris, where our son would be born a month later. My husband had been working for Time magazine, and we had been accused of breaking unjust laws, among them publishing photographs of “unrest” in South Africa.

It was the case then, and perhaps still is, that commercial airlines would not accept a passenger who was more than eight months’ pregnant, and so I flew on the last possible day. I had received pre-natal care in the Republic of South Africa as an “elderly prima gravida” and was somewhat concerned about transferring to a Parisian obstetrician when I was so far along in the pregnancy, but we were recommended to a wonderful doctor, who was affiliated with a birthing hospital in Paris. I was unfamiliar with such hospitals, as none, to my knowledge, existed in the United States at that time. These were facilities for delivering babies. Nothing else.

So when my labor began, I arrived at this hospital—an immaculate, technologically advanced clinic that was nevertheless homey and comfortable—and was checked into my room and introduced to the two midwives who would assist me in my labor. For 24 hours I labored and failed “to progress”— that is, to dilate enough to allow for the birth. The physician was called, and after consulting with the two very kind and supportive midwives, it was decided, in consultation with me, that I would have a caesarean. This was not a common practice in France at that time, as it already was in the United States. The obstetrician assured me that I could have an epidural, and would be awake for the birth, and could hold my son immediately.

Forty-five minutes later, my son was in my arms. The surgical team was excellent and supportive. The atmosphere in the operating room was joyful. My son was bathed and dressed, placed in an incubator to keep him warm, and we were both taken to a private room, where we spent a week. My bed was near a window with an iron grillwork balcony. It was April, and so the window was almost always stippled with rain. I was allowed to have my son with me, and my husband was permitted to stay with us in the room as much as he liked—all night if he wished. I was served excellent meals, and for lunch and dinner, was encouraged to drink red wine, which would be, I was assured, good for me. It would build up my strength and my blood, or some such thing. I really think that the nurses hoped the wine would put me to sleep, as well as my nursing baby.

They kept us for a week because I had had a caesarean, because I needed time to convalesce and to bond with the baby without worry or stress. Every morning they brought Sean to me, bathed and dressed, and as we settled in, they showed me videos about how to care for an infant. On one morning, a masseuse came by and asked if I would like a back massage, which was, she assured me, included as part of my stay. On another, a hairdresser appeared, asking if I would like my hair shampooed and styled—again, included, as a gift to the young mother. A photographer arrived to take pictures of the baby and me.

After a few weeks, we visited the obstetrician, who sat at his desk and wrote out by hand our medical bill, apologizing for having to bill us at all, but we were, after all, tourists. We had no residence permit, so he would have to charge us a fee for his services: the hospital stay, the nurse, the midwives, the anesthesiologist, the lab-work, and so on. He scribbled the total fee on a piece of paper: $1,500. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “to have to charge you. If you had a residence card …”

We gazed at the bill in utter disbelieve. Perhaps zeroes were missing? No. The charge was accurate, and to the doctor’s mind, unfortunate. The problem was simply that we weren’t French. Among other things, he said by way of explanation, “French people do not sue other French people.” But for the rest of the difference between what we were charged here and what we would pay at home, he had no explanation. If you were French, he added, you would have not had to pay anything, but as we were not, there was a small charge. In fact, had you been French, he added, the French government would have given you a stipend for having contributed a new French citizen.

I wrote to my women friends in the United States: If you get pregnant, buy a ticket to Paris! Have your baby there. You can afford to stay for a month for what you will save! And that, my friends, is the French health system. That is what, I’m told, we can’t have—and, moreover, don’t want!—in the United States.



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failed_honesty 2nd-Oct-2009 05:07 am (UTC)
My high school French teacher lived there for ten years and married a French man and that is where she had her children. She would go on and on about how well taken care of she was, how she would never ever give birth in an American hospital because of the difference of quality and care she received while living over seas.
misatojaganshi 2nd-Oct-2009 05:16 am (UTC)
wow that's pretty interesting. i wonder how long they let women who have c-sections stay in U.S hospitals?
ladyofshalott06 2nd-Oct-2009 05:24 am (UTC)
I think it's 2-3 days for a c-section... I can't quite remember. My cousin had one in May. She was definitely in and out of there pretty quickly.
adelaidejewel 2nd-Oct-2009 05:26 am (UTC)
We learned about the French healthcare system in one of my French classes last semester.

You get money for having kids and different amounts of money (per month, I think, though I may be wrong) depending on how many children you have. They also pay for medical expenses as well as daycare/babysitting expenses. It's pretty freaking sweet.

Edited at 2009-10-02 05:27 am (UTC)
akuma_river 2nd-Oct-2009 11:18 am (UTC)
I think that is because of their low and aging population. Other countries that are having problems such as this have programs similar to it.

The US on the other hand has teen pregnancies and immigrants so we constantly have an influx of people and don't have to worry about population decreases.
ajremix 2nd-Oct-2009 05:49 am (UTC)
Holy crap! $1,500? That's only slightly more expensive than a month's rent for me and that gets her a week of free meals AND a massage? Damn, I'm starting to wish I actually paid attention in high school French class...
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
xzombifiedx 2nd-Oct-2009 05:55 am (UTC)
brb, moving to France.

I wish I could, tbh.
showercapfrog 2nd-Oct-2009 06:51 am (UTC)
Part of the price in the US may be due to litigation risks...
homasse 2nd-Oct-2009 07:18 am (UTC)
A lot of Americans are so convinced we have the best system in the world, just because we're American, and that is such bull. I live in a country with nationalized health care, and there is no way I'm moving back to a country without it. Screw that noise and give me access to doctors and decent amounts of time in a hospital.

I had knee surgery in Japan, and was in the hospital for five weeks (two surgeries, in fact, and the first one I was in for a week, and the doctors decided I had to stay longer because my knee hadn't healed quite enough.) In the US, I would have only been in the hospital a week, if that, and probably would have had to drive or been driven in for rehab, and I don't even want to think about what the cost would have been (my family wanted me either not have the surgery or to fly back to America and do it, and I was like, "No, I need the surgery, and if I did it in America...I would pay for it how?!" As soon as I brought up cost, everyone shut up.)
salienne 2nd-Oct-2009 11:16 am (UTC)

I have a distant family friend who lives in Paris, thinks she'll let me move in?
calimazan 2nd-Oct-2009 11:47 am (UTC)
I'm Spanish and while giving birth here is nowhere near as great as in France (OMG, a massage!) I can't think of living in a place where health care is not universal. I mean, there's a small wank because the country has no money and yet we're still sort of covering illegal immigrants.

I'd like to move to the US, when I'm dreaming awake, but I know that if I would I'd be praying everyday to stay healthy. *shudders*
chavah 2nd-Oct-2009 11:59 am (UTC)
American norms surrounding hospital birth are one of the many reasons I planned home births with both of my kids! Our c-section rates are ridiculous (about 29% when the World Health Organization recommends about 12%) are infant mortality rates are atrocious (one of the worst in developed countries), our insurance companies dictate the length of stay, and most obstetricians have rarely if ever even seen a normal/natural birth.

I could go on and on, but yes... child birth in France is a way better experience than in the US financially, emotionally, and for the health of mother and baby.
the_gabih 2nd-Oct-2009 12:11 pm (UTC)
This cements my plans to move to France one day. English care isn't bad per se (at least not according to various relatives/friends who have had children), but that sounds amazing.
sixfiftysix 2nd-Oct-2009 01:35 pm (UTC)
Having just gone through the process of having my son, and now being in the hospital with him (they're determining whether he has epilepsy or a rare disorder that mimics seizures without *actually* being seizures), I would kill for a system similar to the French system.

The focus during such a time in your life should be on the baby and recovering/bonding, not being shuttled out of a hospital before you are ready, or worrying about insurance and money, etc. and so forth. Prime example? In the midst of my son having an episode, I had the financial supervisor come and ask me for a $3,000 deposit for his hospital care because we're list as "self pay" since he is lacking a Medicaid card... well gee, maybe that's because he's TWELVE FUCKING DAYS OLD.
serendipity_15 2nd-Oct-2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Wow, so can I move to France when I have kids?

I don't understand the anger when it comes to just mentioning a public option. I thought that all those people who protest the loudest against it were also the ones telling us to be 'good Christians', so I'm not a regular church goer or read the Bible much but I do remember Jesus saying that we should you know, take care of each other.

31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
-Matthew 25:31-46
dragonhawker 2nd-Oct-2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
Nice quote.
dragonhawker 2nd-Oct-2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
We gazed at the bill in utter disbelief. Perhaps zeroes were missing?

I had this exact same reaction when I visited a dentist in Japan and had root canal and crown work done. The total bill for extensive work over multiple visits came to maybe $150.
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