Maternal death in Africa

One in 20 African women dies in childbirth. Broadsheet hero Nicholas Kristof calls attention to the crisis.

Published September 18, 2006 4:30PM (EDT)

National conscience Nicholas Kristof's Sunday column (subscription required) in the New York Times put the spotlight on maternal mortality in the developing world, because, as he aptly put it, "it should be an international scandal that the number of women dying in pregnancy worldwide has been stuck at a half-million for a quarter-century." Reporting from Cameroon, where the maternal mortality rate has actually risen since 1998, Kristof described the plight of suffering mothers whose doctors and family members watch helplessly, lacking the money and obstetrical supplies to cope with a complicated labor. And the statistics put the crisis in even starker relief: "Over all," Kristof wrote, "an African woman now has one chance in 20 of dying in pregnancy. In much of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to become pregnant."

Given that very clear and present danger, it's inhumane to insist on certain methods of family planning while blocking others. Sadly, the Bush administration's paltry, conditional support of international relief efforts just keeps on truckin'; as Kristof noted, "The United Nations Population Fund has helped lead the effort to reduce maternal deaths -- yet the Bush administration has cut off all U.S. funding for the agency because of (false) accusations that it supports abortions in China." Policies like these, Kristof observed, doom those who are "poor and female and rural -- the most overlooked and disposable people throughout the developing world."

Kristof also highlighted the conflict between doctors and Africa's rural poor: Even in cases when doctors have the wherewithal to operate on a laboring woman in critical condition, he explained, they may not do so because "It is easier to explain a pregnant woman who has not been treated at all and died than one who has undergone an emergency Caesarian and then died." While in Cameroon, Kristof and his team donated blood for a dying mother in need of a transfusion and a C-section, only to find that her doctor had gone home for the day. When Kristof implored the hospital staff to intervene, lest the woman die during the night, a local nurse had a faith-based answer: "That would be God's will," she said.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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