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Honor Thy Mother

Prepared by: Esther Pan
June 30, 2006

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One of the most natural activities in life for women can be one of the most dangerous. Childbirth claims the lives of about 530,000 women worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and roughly another 10 million are injured or disabled due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. "In some countries, getting pregnant is the most dangerous thing a woman can do," says Isobel Coleman, director of CFR's U.S. foreign policy and women program. Coleman and Laurie Garrett, CFR's senior fellow for global health, convened a symposium June 27 to address solutions to this global health crisis.

A WHO report on maternal mortality says a woman's lifetime risk of dying in childbirth is one in 2,400 in Europe, one in ninety-four in Asia, one in sixty in Latin America, and a dismal one in twenty in Africa. In the United States, the chance that a woman will die in childbirth is one in 2,500, compared to Sweden, where the figure is one in 30,000. In some parts of Haiti, where the average woman has twelve pregnancies in her lifetime, pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death for women.

Reducing the maternal mortality rate—the number of deaths of the mother per 100,000 live births—by three-quarters is one of the UN Millennium Development Goals. But the UN's latest progress report (PDF) says the countries where it is most dangerous for women to give birth—primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, which combined account for 95 percent of total maternal deaths—are not making enough progress to meet the goals by 2015.

Experts agree that access to family planning services brings down the rate of maternal deaths, abortions, and deaths from unsafe abortions. In the last decade, some 120 million women did not have access to contraception to prevent their pregnancies, according to the Global Health Council. Critics blame some conservative Muslim states, including Syria and Pakistan, as well as the United States, for blocking information about contraception and family planning from millions of women. Planned Parenthood says the Bush administration has limited women's access at home and abroad to contraception and family-planning tools. The Bush administration strongly opposes programs it believes could promote access to abortion. But in response to concerns about the administration's views on contraception, a Health and Human Services department official recently wrote that the administration supports the availability of products "to assist responsible adults in making decisions about preventing or delaying conception" (PDF). This recent CRS report (PDF) looks at the contentious issue of U.S. international population assistance. In 2005, dozens of prominent figures in global health and governance called for universal access to health care systems (PDF) that are safe, effective, accessible, and affordable.

Despite the severity of the problem, progress is being made. Save the Children's 2006 State of the World's Mothers report (PDF) says political will is more important than national wealth in improving the survival rates of mothers in childbirth. It cites Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Vietnam as making significant progress in decreasing their national maternal mortality rate. The Global Health Council details some of the biggest challenges in women's health and shows which organizations are making a difference.

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