The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions

RH Reality Check ,
January 15, 2009

Fight Of Our Lives: UNICEF Uncovers The State of Maternal Mortality

By Amie Newman

Childbirth and pregnancy are extremely dangerous endeavors for the women of the world but most especially for women in developing nations and even more especially for teen girls in developing nations. We know this. We know that anti-choice, religious right extremists prefer to throw women and girls under the bus rather than admit to this fact. But it is the truth.

In fact, Lorraine Berry at My Left Wing writes about the extremely conservative group Concerned Women for America's (CWFA) latest tirade on teen pregnancy, in their effort to make sure failed abstinence pledges are promoted over education and contraception. Lorraine writes:

Sometimes, all I need to know I can learn in the local graveyards. If the CWFA doesn't believe that being pregnant is risky, that we all need to be making an effort to provide ALL women with proper pre-natal care, contraceptives, access to abortions, and assistance in leaving abusive marriages, I'd be happy to walk them through any of the dozen or so graveyards around here that have way too many graves for young women and their newborns. First wives, second wives, third wives, all buried with their husbands, who outlived his wives because childbearing killed each of them. The saddest markers, of course, are the ones where the mother and newborn are buried together.

Pregnancy and childbirth harm and kill women and are still quite dangerous for newborn babies and as far as I can tell the situation for both are not improving. UNICEF will even back me up on this. Today, the organization released its annual report and its pages reveal some shocking news:

Having a child remains one of the biggest health risks for women worldwide. Fifteen hundred women die every day while giving birth. That’s a half a million mothers every year. [emphasis mine]

“It’s really an unconscionable number of deaths. It’s a human tragedy on a massive scale,” says UNICEF Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama.

A human tragedy on a massive scale?

Doesn't that sound like a phrase you hear anti-choice organizations use constantly to refer to the "tragedy of abortion"? But how, and I ask this honestly, how does one justify using millions and millions of dollars and woman- and man-power to strip women and families of their right to access safe abortion care when half a million women (and their babies) are in danger of injury or death from preventable causes?

In fact, for every woman who dies from pregnancy or childbirth related causes, there are 20 who suffer pregnancy-related illness or experience severe health consequences - that's ten million women every year who survive their pregnancies only to suffer these extreme health outcomes. And we're talking severe people - obstetric fistula, anyone? But even fistula could be prevented and easily - easily - treated if this issue were the global priority it should be.

But it gets worse. The report focuses some of its attention on the even worse plight of adolescent pregnant girls. According to the report, every year more than 70,000 girls - young girls between the ages of 15-19 years old - die from pregnancy and child-birth related causes.

There is a strong connection between the status of girls and women in society, opportunities for education, and access to critical health care services during pregnancy and childbirth and throughout a female's lifetime.

"If young girls are not in school, they are more vulnerable," South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan said at the launch. "It's not just a health issue; it is about the status of young women and girls."

There are some concrete ways in which we can work towards solving the problem that involve providing necessary health services. And these services will help save the lives of both women and babies.

In addition to adequate nutrition for women, birth spacing is also central to avoiding preterm births, low birthweight in infants and neonatal deaths; studies show that birth intervals of less than 24 months significantly increase these risks. It is also imperative to secure girls’ access to proper nutrition and health care from birth through childhood and into adolescence, womanhood and their potential childbearing years.

We understand what the underlying and contributing causes to the decimation of our mothers are, so why are girls and women still, literally, fighting for their lives?

Maternal and newborn health is part of the Millennium Development Goals, a contract between the world's governments, to tackle critical issues like poverty, HIV/AIDS, and maternal mortality. Unfortunately we have made the least progress on this goal: to reduce maternal mortality by 75% by the year 2015. In fact, it is a given that we won't reach that goal. Why is this?

According to the UNICEF report,

That maternal health – as epitomized by the risk of death or disability from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – has scarcely advanced in decades is the result of multiple underlying causes. The root cause may lie in women’s disadvantaged position in many countries and cultures, and in the lack of attention to, and accountability for, women’s rights.

In other words, the report says, conventions like CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which stipulate family planning, preventive health care, pre and post natal care and more are not being followed. It may be worth noting here that the United States is the only industrialized nation that has neglected CEDAW by not ratifiying it.

I am going to start and end this post somewhat punitively by referring once again to the larger anti-choice movement. I challenge anti-choice advocates to work with organizations like UNICEF, reflect on the knowledge that the Convention on the Rights of the Child brings us, and to use the information that family planning, prevention and education save the lives of women, girls, and newborn babies to refocus their energy on the lives of our mothers and children. In order to tackle the dire rates of maternal mortality around the world, we must prioritize the health and well-being of women & girls by doing what works - even if what works is in opposition to what the political leaders of these anti-choice organizations want to see happen.

For more on The State of the World's Children (and Women), read the report.

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