Despite Advances, Childbirth Isn’t Risk-Free

This is the fifth in a series of posts written by Americans for UNFPA. Look for Anika Rahman's expert opinions each week!

The Associated Press reported last week that the maternal death rate, though very small in the United States, rose to 13 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

It's shocking and as one widower put it, "it's hard to understand that somebody can just die like that in this day and age, in a modern hospital with doctors and nurses."

It's true that the benefits of modern Western medicine have led to a general belief that childbirth isn't as dangerous. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, many of UNFPA's supporters come to us after having a child later in life when there are more likely to be complications and the full measure of childbirth is more apparent. I understand — I had my daughter in my late thirties.

The AP noted that three different studies indicate at least 40 percent of maternal deaths could have been prevented. That's troubling in a country where medicine is so good that the majority of women are screened for breast and cervical cancer on a regular basis. But around the world, a woman dies every minute in childbirth and almost all of them — the ones in low-income countries — could have been prevented by the care we take for granted here in the U.S.

In fact, I think Western medicine might be a victim of its own success in this area. Ironically, Cesarean sections, the very procedure that women all over the world need to save their own lives or to spare them from permanent disability, might be contributing to a higher rate of maternal mortality in this country.

It never makes sense to me when people say that yes, women's health as a global issue is important but we have problems here we should take care of first. To be sure, there are many women in the United States who receive substandard health care and there are communities where this is widespread. But why should we be talking about "us" and "them?" The one thing that every person on this planet has in common is that we all come from a woman's body. I've often said this is the essence of our common humanity and it strikes me that this is a stark reminder of how resilient and yet fragile we are, what a great gift it is to be able to give life and how very much that binds us — all women — together.

All of the candidates currently running for office have children. And none of those mothers died having them. Even I would think a candidate who stood up and declared his or her intention to bring safe motherhood to the planet as a hopeless panderer.

And yet maternal mortality is one of the world's most intractable problems. While most other health indicators have improved over the last 50 years, safe motherhood remains elusive in many parts of the world. Crack that one and it's a pretty good bet that that health care in general would have improved and that the status of women would have gone up by the sheer number of women alive and able to more fully participate — to demand to participate — in society. Oh, and poverty goes down as a result of all of it.

I take it back — I would like to see the candidates declare maternal health as a goal if elected!

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  • annrose

    Dr. William Harrison also discusses this at
    Hot Flash Report

    "And for much of the Religious Right, any slut who doesn't want to have a baby has no business having SEX, and a rise in Maternal Morbidity (M&M) and Mortality is exactly what she deserves! And, you might ask, 'what about Birth Control (BC)?' Well, don't ask! If she's screwing around and doesn't want a baby, she deserves to get sick and die!"

    He compares the relative safety of legal abortion risk to childbirth risk:

    "Many states, including mine, force abortion care providers like me to give information about the risks of receiving safe, legal, professional abortion care. These risks are miniscule when compared to the risks that face even the healthiest young woman over her 9 months of pregnancy and year or so of post partum follow up. I think if we Ob-Gyns were forced to hand out warnings of the amazing numbers of risks and potential consequences facing every pregnant woman, it would be a miracle that any girl or woman ever accepted those risks."

    And he further compares the number of deaths of mothers and children in this country to the number of deaths on 9/11.

    "If one counts the number of America's dead children and dead mothers, and those still alive but bearing lifelong and massive injuries in this country, these numbers far exceed those of 9/11 and the disastrous numbers of dead and injured Americans in Bush's "War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq."

  • invalid-0

    As a former communications director for a clinic, I have been continually amazed at how many people have NO idea how SAFE the abortion procedure is and how much riskier childbirth can be. It’s not that healthy women are in danger during childbirth but that there are a a multitude of risks associated with childbirth that millions of women in this country and millions more around the world have absolutely NO idea about.

    While the anti-choicers are spewing lies about the “health risks” of abortion, miilions of pregnant women who WANT to keep their pregnancy die because of a lack of health care information and access.

    It’s despicable but with sites like yours, Ann, and ours we can mount a greater offense and defense and spread the gospel of truth!!

  • annrose

    It's amazing how many people even in the progressive blogosphere are really not that well informed about women's reproductice issues. I guess all we can do is hammer home these facts repeatedly and hope they take hold.


    [ Abortion Clinics OnLine]

    [ Hot Flash Report Blog]

  • invalid-0

    The Farm Commune that Ina May Gaskin tells the story of in “Spiritual Midwifery” had 30 years of astonishingly low infant mortality — 3.9 per 1000 births — and no maternal mortality. Here’s the kicker: 95% of her births were homebirths, and her c-section rate was 1.4%! What did The Farm mothers have that the rest of the world can’t boast of? Skilled midwifery care, healthy lifestyle and excellent nutrition, and a supportive birth community. Little of this has to do with medicine per se, but with public health and the empowerment of women. Can we please stop separating childbirth out of this whole equation, as if it exists in a vaccuum?

  • invalid-0

    For many years as a sexuality educator, I used Dr Robert Hatcher’s Contraceptive Technology as a resource reference. He has always included a chart in the chapters on Teen Pregnancy that showed the relative risks of a variety of risky behaviors.

    Riding a motorcycle posed the highest risk and using
    contraception and having an abortion were extremely low risks on the list – less than 1 in hundreds of thousands

    Having a baby for a teen is even much higher risk than for an adult woman – about four time the risk.

    It is appalling to think how we have allowed the fear mongers and scare tactics to prevail in our society, and even worse to undermine the education of our young people.