Friday, October 14, 2005

The Practical Application
of Universal Healthcare

From Julia Gorin in the Opinion Journal:

I recently came face to face with a level of Western ignorance that I hadn't encountered since the 1980s, when Russian immigrants were still a novelty to Americans. A British-American asked my father a question that could only come from someone who has known freedom his whole life: "Why did you leave Russia? Your family was there, you had a job, you had free health care. Why did you leave?" The questioner, a former editor with the New York Times, then proceeded to assert that today's Britain and U.S. are no longer free.

The exchange reminded me just how out of touch many who live in the free world are with the reality of life under tyranny--and why, therefore, so many Americans and Brits think nothing is scarier than war. On the subject even of that oft-cited "perk" of Soviet life, universal health care, a picture of the system in practice on its happiest occasion would shock Americans and Western Europeans alike.

For her second delivery, Mom never went into labor. She was two weeks overdue and the baby had stopped moving. Fearing the worst, she took the metro to the hospital.

"Are you in labor?"


Again Mom thought she'd done something wrong because people were yelling at her as soon as she walked in: "Then why did you come? You like hanging around hospitals, do you?"
"I don't feel anything moving."

"Oh. OK, wait for the doctor."

Fortunately, a younger nurse overheard the conversation. "What--it's not moving? How long? Since last night? OK, go over there and get undressed."

People stopped yelling at my mother then, and she got more attention.

"I don't hear the baby," said the old doctor who was on duty. "Is this your first child?"


"Did the first one live?"


"Good. Because the prognosis here isn't good."

Since there was no labor activity, labor was induced. In Russia this was called "stimulating labor," and it required one to drink castor oil. My mother has its taste on her tongue to this day, she told me. Her body contorted inexplicably, and she became catatonic, unable to move her arms or legs.

She could hear the yelling at the others as it continued in the background: "Stop screaming!" "You're not the first to give birth; you won't be the last!" "Shut your mouth!"

After some time, Mom's catatonia relaxed and the contractions started. A few hours later the baby was born, and my mother heard the doctor call to an orderly: "Quick! You with the water--the baby is in asphyxia!"

My mother lay emotionless, able only to hear spanking for what she believes to be nearly half an hour as the doctor tried to revive me. Finally, she heard crying.

Had my mother been a party boss's relative, her birthing experiences would have looked a lot more like the common woman's in America. But such was delivery for 99% of the Russian female population.

In America, women often remember abortion as traumatic. My mother barely remembers her two abortions (Russian birth control), but she can't forget a single traumatic detail of her children's births.

Today the Soviet Union is gone, but the communist system lives on in a few places. The glimpse we have into North Korea's delivery rooms is into those at detention centers for political prisoners, as described to Marie Claire magazine in 2002 by Lee Young Suk, a 65-year-old grandmother who was deported back to North Korea after she defected to China. At a detention center in South Sinuiju province, Lee Young was assigned to help deliver babies of other prisoners.

When she delivered the baby of the first woman under her care and reached for a blanket, a guard stopped her: "You crazy hag, are you out of your mind? What are you doing with the baby? Just put it in the box!" He grabbed the baby by a leg and dumped him into a wooden box that was sitting on the floor. He hit Lee Young's arm with a leather strap.

"North Korea is short of food already," the chief medical officer explained. "Why do we have to feed the offspring of foreign fathers? Since China is an open country, they could even be babies of American sperm, so then we'd be feeding Americans."

The procedure was as follows: Once the box was filled with infants, it would be taken to the mountains and buried. Most of the babies would die within four days, but Lee Young recalled two particularly healthy ones who took longer, moving their heads left to right, opening and closing their eyes and making froglike croaks. Their skin turned yellow and their lips blue until the medical officer finally stabbed them through the skull. Lee Young was reassigned when her heart weakened from what she was witnessing. She eventually bribed her way out of prison and into South Korea.

We share the planet with North Korea and its ilk. As many intellectuals, academics and literary and Hollywood luminaries commented soon after 9/11--with some vindication in their tone--we do not live in a vacuum. Yet for the most part they, along with the isolationist right, seem indifferent to the suffering of tyranny's victims. They blithely champion the status quo, or in the case of Iraq the status quo ante, repeating only that Saddam Hussein wasn't a threat to us.