Finally, Some Good News

4.16.10: Maternal Mortality Rates are Going Down


We have reason to celebrate. The New York Times delivered fantastic news: Maternal mortality rates are going down. Reporting on an article published this week in The Lancet (a highly regarded medical journal), the Times article reports, “For the first time in decades, researchers are reporting a significant drop worldwide in the number of women dying each year from pregnancy and childbirth, to about 342,900 in 2008 from 526,300 in 1980.”

Wow! Programs that improved access to and quality of health care, nutrition, education, transportation and more saved a whole lot of women. Most of the women benefitting from these improvements (and therefore surviving childbirth and pregnancy) are in developing countries like India, Africa, Latin America and in China. Here’s the bad news – maternal deaths are still on the rise in the United States. This week, however, I’m sticking with the happy news from abroad.

The Times reported some women’s health advocates and agencies were upset that the Lancet study was being published this week. They wanted it delayed so it wouldn’t detract from crucial meetings coming up within the United Nations to discuss women’s health issues. These advocates hope to snag more financial support for foreign aid. They don’t want the officials who hold the purse strings to say, “Eh, you don’t need any more help from us. Things are working out OK. Heck, the numbers are down. We’re only losing 342,900 women a year now.”

342,900 women a year. That’s about how many people live in Minneapolis. Every year, a population the size of Minneapolis dies from having a baby. When you look at it that way, I kind of understand why certain agencies wanted to keep this study on the down low. On the other hand, if there’s finally good news out that all the work to improve women’s health is actually working; let’s not hide that under a bushel. Let’s celebrate.

So, I checked in with my buddies at CARE (who I travelled with last year to check out one of their hugely successful maternal health programs in Peru) to find out if they were one of those agencies. CARE is a leading organization that fights global poverty by empowering women and girls. They’ve made reducing maternal mortality one of its top priorities. They work directly with women and communities, empowering them with services and information while affecting policies to ensure that safe pregnancy and birth are a basic human right. It’s this kind of work that’s brought the numbers down.

As it happens, CARE is as delighted about these numbers as I am. Here’s what Dr. Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE says: “CARE welcomes the news that global maternal deaths are declining, according to a new study released in the medical journal, The Lancet. This is encouraging, and illustrates what we know from experience: we can make significant improvements in maternal health and save women’s lives. Yet we know much more work remains. Hundreds of thousands of women still die needlessly each year while pregnant or giving birth, and millions more are left with life-altering disabilities. We cannot become complacent because of these findings. We know how to further improve these numbers: women must have access to skilled care at birth, emergency obstetric and post partum care. We also need the financial resources and political will to continue to make progress.”

Here are a few of the CARE programs that are helping drop the deadly number:

• CARE advanced a 10-year program in nine states in India – one of the largest nongovernmental organization public health programs in the world – to strengthen the quality and coverage of maternal and child health services.

• In Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, CARE helped cut fatality rates in emergency obstetric care facilities by 30 to 50 percent.

• In Cambodia, Peru and Uganda, CARE supported birth planning and referral networks that led to more women receiving lifesaving services.

I’m also excited about another organization working to make birth safe in Uganda – The Shanti Uganda Birth Center. Our editor in chief, Peg Moline mentions them in the current issue of Fit Pregnancy (on newsstands now). We’ve all taken a shine to this little birth center than could and have pitched our financial and emotional support their way.

Why does this study matter to American women? Because it’s a mile-marker of where we are in the journey of making women truly equal on this planet. It’s a testament that many women in the world suffer on their way to becoming mothers because they have too little. Here in the US, our maternal mortality issues are just as complex but tend to err on the side of too much. Let’s shift the balance towards equity.

You can help bring the numbers down further. Buy a birthday present for women around the world who are less fortunate than you. Log on to to make a donation that will help keep their global programs running. Log on to to donate to a specific birth center. Seriously, your donation will be part of the big solution.

I’ll give Dr. Gayle the final word: “We have the tools to keep these numbers going down. We need the financial resources and political will to be successful. We must not stop because every mother matters.”

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.