Almost more than any topic, maternal morality has been the focus of this year’s meeting of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which commemorates the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing women’s conference. While all agree on the need to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality, two main competing views on how best to do so have emerged – with one camp emphasizing abortion.
Stressing the importance for governments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, government delegations and UN officials have lamented the lack of progress on MDG 5, to improve maternal health. At the opening of the conference, Deputy Secretary-General Rachel Mayanja stated that there has been “limited progress on reproductive health” and that “maternal mortality remains unacceptably high.” Mayanja emphasized that “almost all these deaths could be prevented.”
In the soon-to-finish two week meeting, member states are battling over a resolution on maternal mortality introduced by the United States. Since its introduction last week, the European Union has been trying to amend the resolution to include “sexual and reproductive health and rights.” Negotiations are expected to last to the end of the conference on Friday afternoon.
Seeking to influence negotiations, dueling brochures on maternal mortality have been circulated in the UN halls during CSW, which highlight the different approaches to reducing maternal mortality. The US-based National Right to Life Committee brochure focuses on skilled birth attendants and access to good basic health care as the most effective means of reducing maternal deaths. National Right to Life asserts that the “maternal mortality argument for allowing abortion fails entirely—legal abortion only leads to more abortions and, as a result, more abortion-related complications for women.” In sum, “better medical care, not abortion, is the solution to the problem of maternal deaths in the developing world.”
Conversely, an almost identical-looking brochure produced by abortion advocate Ipas claims that “safe, legal and voluntary” abortion will eliminate “unsafe abortion” and “ensure fewer maternal deaths and better reproductive health, especially for women in developing countries.”
According to Ipas, “Legally permitting safe abortion and making abortion services widely accessible, in accordance with guidance from the World Health Organization, has a significant positive impact on women’s health and rights in countries with high rates of unsafe abortion and restrictive laws.”
The World Health Organization’s statistics reveal that the countries with the most restrictions on abortion also have the lowest maternal mortality figures.
The issue of maternal mortality is expected to remain at the top of the development agenda this year with three upcoming international conferences – NGO-organized Women Deliver 2 in June, the UN Annual Ministerial Meeting scheduled in July and a High Level Review of the MDGs scheduled for next fall after the opening of the General Assembly.