“Would the world stand by if it were men who were dying just for completing their reproductive functions?”
Asha-Rose Migrio, UN Deputy Secretary General, 2007
Girls, let’s face it. We are dreamers AND planners. We have a board of wedding venues on Pinterest. At one time or another we may have made a list about qualities we desire in our future husbands. We may even have a list of potential baby names. We yearn for real adult life marked by full-time careers, marriage, and possibly motherhood. Whether we are ready for children or not, the reality is, here in America, we can dream relatively worry free. Maybe a few of us have heard about, or have ourselves experienced, traumatic birthing situations sometimes resulting in the loss of life. It happens. Not often, but unfortunately it does. Many times, however, the medical developments of the west prevent this. Unfortunately, that is a privilege mothers in other countries are typically not afforded. Right now, the amount we Americans spend on maternal health is equivalent to less than one twentieth of 1 percent of the amount we spend on our military. And other countries are spending way, way less.
The World Health Organization estimates that 536,000 women perished in pregnancy or childbirth in 2005, a toll that has barely budged in thirty years. Child mortality has plunged, longevity has increased, but childbirth remains almost as deadly as ever, with roughly one maternal death per minute.
The immediate cause of death may be eclampsia, hemorrhage, malaria, abortion complications, obstructed labor or sepsis. But behind the medical explanations are the more sinister ones:
One reason women are dying in childbirth has to do with anatomy, arising from two basic evolutionary trade-offs. The first is that when our ancestors began to walk upright, a narrower pelvis became much more advantageous for fast running. However, not for childbirth. Additionally, human skull size has been expanding to accommodate more complex brains which coupled with narrower pelvises makes childbirth exceedingly difficult.
Lack of Schooling
If villages worldwide were better educated, the maternal mortality rate would decrease significantly. Education is associated with lower desired family size, greater use of contraception, and increased use of hospitals. Education and family planning also tend to leave families better able to earn a living and more likely to accumulate savings as to afford health care.
Lack in Rural Health Systems
Many countries have rather poor health care structures. Patients are not operated on in a timely manner. Powerful antibiotics are not available. Birth attendants are untrained, ill-equipped, and usually located far from small, rural villages. There is also a huge shortage of health professionals in some developing countries. Another problem is that doctors and nurses often do not show up for work, particularly in rural clinics.
Disregard for Women
In much of the world, women die because they are not thought to matter. There is a strong correlation between countries where women are marginalized and countries with high maternal mortality. The journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology states that “women are not dying because of untreatable diseases. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.” (cited from Half the Sky)
I hesitate to overstate the issues at hand. Maternal mortality is an injustice that is tolerated only because its victims are typically poor, rural women. The best argument to stop it, however, is not economic but ethical. What is most horrifying about the staggering statistics concerning maternal mortality rates is that lives are being neglected.
This is a human rights issue, as much as it is a gender issue.