Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Scandal of Maternal Mortality

I am ashamed to admit that I did not entirely appreciate how dangerous childbirth can be for both women and their babies until I became a mother myself. My eldest son, who is now five years old, would not be alive today if it were not for a skilled obstetrics team who delivered him by emergency caesarean, following a lengthy obstructed labour. My youngest child would not be alive today if it were not for skilled midwives and paediatricians who resuscitated him when he stopped breathing, and detected and treated his chest infection in a well-equipped Special Care Baby Unit, manned 24 hours a day by dedicated nurses. And I am aware that I would not be alive today to raise my children if I had not had access to excellent hospital facilities, nurses, midwives and doctors who were able to save my life when I developed complications during two out of three labours. I told somebody after my first baby was born that when, after nearly twenty-four hours of the worst agony I had ever experienced, an obstetrician entered the labour room, I felt as though I were being rescued from a torture chamber. Contrary to the opinions of some of my more acerbic critics, this was not my "fondness for hyperbole at work":  I was in fact demonstrating the great British art of understatement. The obstetrics team at the Rosie Maternity Hospital were not rescuing me from torture;  they were rescuing me and my baby from death sentences.

Here in the West I think we can all be in danger of complacency when it comes to maternal health. Mercifully, very few people reading this will know a woman who has died in childbirth and maternal mortality can feel rather like the stuff of Victorian horror stories. I remember everyone giggling during A-level English Literature classes over the number of nineteenth century novelists who introduced their heroines with the words ―her mother died in childbirth and left her an orphan and a beggar or over  the typical emotional outcry ―save the child! from the mouths of other worthy heroines. But even these Victorian melodramas should be stark reminders that not so long ago in our own history, everyone would have known some woman who had died in childbirth and the tragedy of maternal mortality – of women dying young, of children growing up orphans  – remains the reality in many countries of the world.  However, whereas in early nineteenth century Britain, there was little that could be done to save a woman facing complications such as sepsis or obstructed labour, there is no reason in 2012 why any woman should die during or as a result of giving birth.

That is the real tragedy. There is no inevitability here. Dr Robert Walley, director of the Canadian-based group of Catholic obstetricians and gynaecologists  MaterCare International describes maternal mortality rather more accurately as 'an international disgrace'.

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Dr Walley will be speaking at SPUC's forthcoming conference on maternal mortality in developing countries and the pro-life response. This is a great opportunity to hear some of the world's bravest and most effective medics working in the toughest conditions in developing countries. Book now  for SPUC's "Abortion or maternal health?" conference, 20 March, The Regent Hall, London.

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