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Giving Birth: the Good News

Last week, Time published “The Perils of Pregnancy:  One Woman’s Tale of Dying to Give Birth,” a poignant photo essay and article on the grim reality of women dying in childbirth in Sierra Leone. I read the piece with mixed emotions. 

The images, the tone of the Time article contrasted sharply with everything I heard last week during Women Deliver 2010 conference: family planning use is increasing, child survival is improving, and there have been steady declines in the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes, according to a recent Lancet article.

Yes, Time’s coverage of this pressing issue will capture the public’s attention, a public who might not otherwise know that women in Sierra Leone face a one in eight risk of dying in childbirth. Maybe this article will help the public understand that in the developing world, pregnant women die every day because they bleed to death or from infections, unsafe abortions, eclampsia, obstructed labor and to a lesser degree from “indirect causes” such as malaria, anemia, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular diseases. But I also read the article with a feeling of sadness and almost failure.

In part, my reaction rose from my understanding that most women who die when they are pregnant, or children who die before their fifth birthday, could be saved if they were treated by well-qualified health workers in well-equipped health facilities in a timely manner. Nearly every woman who dies from a pregnancy-related cause lives in a developing country. We know how to save these lives, and we have the technologies to do it, so why are so many women and children still dying?

Part of the answer is that although the “doom and gloom,” approach of presenting worst case scenarios or using “flies in the eyes” images to attract the public attention may work in the short-term, it doesn’t provide the sustainable solutions and long-term investments that are required to save women’s lives.  It is time to herald the good news widely and loudly, to be talking everywhere about the advances that are being made and about the technologies and techniques that are working, if they received more resources, could be scaled up and could save thousands of women’s lives and changes communities everywhere.

It is high time we tell stories about how we can succeed in saving women’s lives in childbirth. This means providing all women with the comprehensive reproductive health care they need before, during, and after a pregnancy. It also means realizing the goals such as the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal 3: promoting equity between the sexes and empowering women. This requires more collaboration and resources to support young women to break the vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance by enabling them to stay in school, join the workforce, and retain lucrative employment if and when they choose to become pregnant.