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BMJ. 2007 October 27; 335(7625): 845.
PMCID: PMC2043440

Maternal mortality is a human rights issue, delegates insist

Maternal mortality must be recognised as a human rights issue, demanded delegates at the Women Deliver conference in London last week.

A new international initiative on maternal mortality and human rights—a collaboration of organisations advocating safe motherhood and human rights—was launched at the conference to focus attention on women and their human right to safe pregnancy and childbirth.

“The scale of avoidable maternal mortality is a human rights catastrophe,” said Lynn Freedman, director of the averting maternal death and disability programme at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, which is behind the initiative.

She said, “There are over 500 000 maternal deaths worldwide each year that are largely avoidable. In most cases these amount to violations of women's rights to life, health, non-discrimination, and equality.”

At the conference, which was held to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Safe Motherhood Initiative, repeated calls were made for greater political commitment to women's health, combined with appropriate investment.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and current head of the human rights group Realizing Rights, told the conference: “Access to basic health care is a human right. We need to be passionate about galvanising the political will. We must not meet again in 10 years and say that we failed to deliver.”

Gill Greer, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said, “Women's rights are quite simply human rights. We are all entitled to rights to health: men and women; children and older people.”

Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, which is based in Washington, DC, told the conference: “Since the global Safe Motherhood Initiative was launched 20 years ago 10 million women have died, and many of these deaths could have been prevented.”

She added: “We are nowhere near achieving the [United Nations] millennium development goal of cutting global maternal mortality by 75% by 2015.”

The 70 cabinet ministers and parliamentarians present at the conference issued a final statement pledging to make achievement of the millenium development goal “a high priority on the national, regional, and international health agenda.” They also promised to advocate for “increased commitment of financial and human resources” to combat maternal mortality.

The lifetime risk of maternal death in developing countries is more than 250 times that in developed countries, says a report released at the conference by Population Action International. The study ranked 130 countries according to a range of indicators, including prevalence of HIV, birth rate among teenagers, and maternal and infant mortality (

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It showed that the Netherlands had the lowest lifetime risk of maternal death, ranked at 130, while the United Kingdom was at 112. Niger had the highest risk, along with Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Ethiopia.

The theme of the conference, “Invest in women—it pays,” emphasised the economic arguments for action. The economic and social cost of maternal and neonatal mortality is enormous, at around $15bn (£7.3bn; €10.5bn) a year in lost productivity (Lancet 2007;370:1347-57). Preventing these deaths would cost only about a third of that amount.

Ms Gupta said that international aid to reduce maternal mortality must increase from the current $530m a year to the $6.1bn a year that the World Health Organization estimates is needed.

Douglas Alexander, the UK's secretary of state for international development, used the conference to announce an additional £100m over five years to help the United Nations Population Fund prevent unwanted pregnancies and make childbirth safer. He called on leaders of the world's poorest countries, particularly those in Africa, to take women's health more seriously and put it at the heart of their decision making.

Cervical Cancer Action, a coalition of global health organisations, was also launched at the conference. The coalition was set up to demand universal access to vaccines, screening tools, and treatment for cervical cancer.


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