Since my daughter was born 17 years ago, I’ve spent Mother’s Day basking in the glow of her birth. I recall the details of my pregnancy, delivery, and labor–sharing them with whoever is willing to listen. The day of her birth continues to shimmer with clarity, an event which I have always considered a miracle and which I celebrate on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and whenever I see a newborn cradled in the arms of its mother.
Perhaps it is because the birth of my child was such a joyous occasion that I am struck by the latest statistics about maternal health around the world. While my biggest fear during pregnancy was that I wouldn’t master breastfeeding, in many parts of the world pregnant women fight against appalling odds that they–or their babies–won’t survive labor and delivery. More than 526,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth every year. That’s one death every minute. It’s 10 million women per generation–about the same as in 1987.
At least that was the conventional wisdom until earlier this month, when a new study showed that the number of women dying each year in childbirth or during pregnancy has decreased from 526,300 in 1980 to 342,900 in 2008. The study, reported in the medical journal The Lancet, was conducted by the University of Washington and the University of Queensland in Australia. Good news at last, and just in time for Mother’s Day!
Efforts by governments and organizations around the world may actually be working–from training nonprofessional health-care workers to home visits for family planning–and saving lives. Because, let’s face it, no women should die giving life. Half the maternal deaths in 2008 were in six countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The worst rate in the world is in Afghanistan, where 1,575 women died for every 100,000 births in 2008.
But don’t get the idea that women are dying in childbirth only in far away, “Third World” countries. Because the new study also shows that maternal mortality is rising in the United States, Canada, and Norway. One of the most surprising findings was the increased U.S. maternal death rate, from 12 out of every 100,000 pregnancies in 1990, to 17 in 2008. That’s a 42 percent increase. American women are twice as likely to die giving birth as women in the United Kingdom, three times as likely as their counterparts in Australia, and four times as likely as Italian women.
The good news is that a global conference taking place in Washington in June will bring together leaders of many nations, foreign ministers, the head of the United Nations, advocates, researchers, and even first ladies from 15 countries to tackle the issue of maternal and newborn health. The Women Deliver conference, which I’m helping to organize, will be the largest gathering ever of people committed to ending maternal deaths. We expect delegates from more than 125 countries to attend.
The new study shows that it is possible to reduce the risks to women of dying in childbirth. We must make it a global priority to do all we can to ensure that no woman has to fear dying before she has a chance to celebrate motherhood. Nearly all deaths are preventable with increased political will and adequate financial investment.
As you pamper your own mother or are yourself pampered this Mother’s Day, please think of women around the world who are far less fortunate. If all American moms lobbied our elected leaders to make maternal health a priority across the globe, we’d be hard to ignore. After all, everyone should listen to his or her mother.