Despite Advances, Childbirth Isn’t Risk-Free

Childbirth is more dangerous than most Americans realize, but maternal health isn't an issue in the 2008 election.

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!