Dying to become mothers

The half-million women who die annually while giving birth are simply not a political priority.

Published October 18, 2007 11:40PM (EDT)

Today's BBC story about the persistence of maternal mortality around the world puts recent controversies about vaginal births after Caesareans and home births into perspective. It's not that the Western medical debates around childbirth are not important, but the fact that half a million women die annually from giving birth simply staggers the mind.

Childbirth is no picnic no matter how many lavender-scented bath salts your beatific midwife has poured into your home-birth jacuzzi. A percentage of women have died giving birth in every country or era, but according to a conference on maternal mortality that began today in London, most of the maternal deaths are imminently preventable. Our recent track record as a species isn't so good. Since 1990, maternal mortality has barely dipped -- falling less than 1 percent per year, according to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report. One in six Afghan women die of childbirth. One woman dies of childbirth every minute of every day. Why?

Women's piss-poor status internationally.

"Leaders do not see the lives and health of women as a political priority," Thoraya Obaid UNFPA told the BBC. "They invest in other sectors." Thus, nearly one-half of all the maternal deaths take place in sub-Saharan Africa where only half the women have any access to a trained birth attendant. In some cases, the battle for funding AIDS programs has left women's reproductive issues out in the cold.

If you're like me and you glaze over when confronted by too many horrifying faraway statistics, it's worth remembering how current U.S. policy comes into the picture. According to Obaid, the UNFPA hasn't received a dime from the U.S. since 2002, when the Bush administration, under the influence of the pro-life lobby, accused the agency of promoting abortion. Concerned Women for America issued a press release criticizing the conference as having an "obsession with abortion" and ignoring the top causes of maternal death. It promised that "pro-family" leaders would attend the conference and report on its "distortions." But according to Population Action International there is a significant connection: 18 of the 26 countries with the highest risk of maternal mortality also have highly restrictive abortion laws.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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