Medical experts blasted the UN’s “abortion-first” approach in a maternal-health presentation to UN delegates last week. Coming on the eve of a UN summit on development issues, the expert panel urged governments to focus on basic medical care rather than abortion to reduce pregnancy-related deaths.
“It is egregious to suggest to mothers that the only way to save their lives is to kill their babies,” said Dr. Robert Walley, head of MaterCare International. “They have the right to health care. They have no voice when they are dead.”
Controversy has dogged the maternal health goal since heads of state established it at the Millennium Summit in 2000. The heads of state explicitly rejected language used by many Western countries to mean abortion, despite intense lobbying for its inclusion at that time and at the subsequent 2005 follow up summit. Even so, subsequent UN-sponsored meetings like the Women Deliver conference in May focused almost exclusively on access to abortion as the way to improve maternal health.
Panelists last week criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for insisting that as long as an abortion is legal, it would always be considered “safe”. The WHO definition of abortion as unsafe or safe is not a medical but legal definition, said Dr. Donna Harrison, an OB/GYN. By contrast, if a country prohibits abortion, any abortions or related complications are automatically categorized as “unsafe,” Harrison said.
Harrison, president of the American Association for Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said WHO and other UN bodies are being dishonest in campaigning for legalized abortion worldwide by hiding behind the pretext of “safe” abortion.
In another blow to the argument that abortions help reduce pregnancy-related deaths , Dr. Elard Koch concluded from government data going back 100 years that Chile’s maternal-death rate continued to fall even after the government banned abortion.
Increasing education levels, maternal literacy rate and maternal health services appear to be the most important factors in lowering maternal deaths, said Koch, an epidemiologist at the University of Chile. Legal access to abortion is not important, as advocates have claimed.
Health systems in developing countries are failing because the focus has been shifted to “reproductive health,” according to Dr. Obi Ideh, an OB/GYN practicing in Nigeria. The failures can be linked to corruption, lack of community-based healthcare, and incomplete medical data that prevent women from getting the care that they require.
Ideh emphasized the need to strengthen family, community and cultural factors as the first-line support for poor mothers and to increase training and staffing of health facilities to combat maternal deaths.
In a passionate account of his work with MaterCare, Dr. Walley described a post-earthquake Haiti where mothers were forced to give birth to their babies “in a toxic soup of rainwater and sewage.” Walley called for the international community to meet its responsibilities to poor mothers in emergency situations in the developing world.
The panel was organized by a coalition of pro-life advocacy groups and hosted by the governments of the Philippines and Malawi.