The clinical nature of the term ‘maternal mortality’ makes the importance – and the humanity behind the concept – hard to fully grasp. It evokes images of statistics, of numbers and of distant percentage rankings that seem to have little to do with the women we know and meet. Yet, the issue of maternal health has a direct and powerful impact on the most human and personal aspects of our lives: our mothers and our children.

The fact is that in the world today, despite the availability of modern technology and huge medical advances, pregnancy poses significant health risk for many women living in parts of the globe. While in developed countries, easy access to high quality care before, during and after pregnancy makes the process safe for most mothers, childbirth is a far more painful and risky process elsewhere in the world. Most maternal deaths are painfully avoidable: women die from basic and preventable, but potentially agonizing complications like hemorrhaging after childbirth, infections, eclampsia and pre-eclampsia, and complications from unsafe abortion procedures.

maternal health
MDG 5 logo courtesy of the United Nations

The United Nations recognized the importance and gravity of maternal mortality worldwide and made improving maternal health as Goal 5 of their landmark Millennium Development Goals. The effects of maternal deaths are far-reaching. It is not only devastating for the mothers and children who are directly affected, but has profound social and economic impacts. The long term effects on the family are well-documented, including depression, withdrawal, less care for dependents such as the elderly and children, negative effects in patterns of household consumption and a decrease in the quality of health of surviving family members. 

Studies done on the effect of maternal mortality in Africa show a direct link between mortality rates and GDP. Women, even when not directly involved in the labor force, enable the generation of income through providing food, ensuring schooling for children and sharing the domestic workload, thereby boosting worker productivity. The results of a 2006 study done in Africa show that the death of a single person reduced GDP by as much as USD $0.36 per year, making bolstering healthcare for expectant mothers as much as financial issue as a social one.

While maternal mortality rates have dropped since the introduction of the MDGs, they still remain unacceptably high. An estimated 800 women die every day because of a lack of access to proper healthcare. Some eye-opening facts from the World Health Organization reveal the alarming truth of childbearing in 2013:

  • The maternal mortality rate as a result of pregnancy related complications is 240 for every 100,000 live births in the developing world (standing in stark contrast to 16 per 100,000 live births in the developed world.)
  • The probability that a 15 year old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause: 1 in 3800 in developed countries, versus 1 in 150 in developing countries.
  • 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.

Maternal mortality rates around the world are still unacceptable, especially given the preventability of the conditions which contribute to it. No woman should have to risk her life to bear a child, and no child should be born with such a high likelihood of being raised without their mother. These are basic rights that are being trampled on through a lack of awareness and engagement with the issue of maternal mortality. To learn more, visit the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals page, or the World Health Organization.

Featured image courtesy of Arne Hoel / World Bank

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