Three Ways to Save Women’s Lives (Part 3)

The rate of maternal deaths and illnesses worldwide is shockingly high. We can and must do something about it now. Here’s the last in our three-part series.

By Francine Coeytaux and Belle Taylor McGhee

To lower maternal mortality worldwide, women and girls must be empowered.
In 1994 in Cairo, at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the U.S. and 178 other countries declared that the “empowerment of women and the improvement in their political, social, economic and health status are highly important ends…Human development cannot be sustained unless women are guaranteed equal rights.”

Maternal health was again addressed when the international community met in 2000 at the Millennium Summit aimed at ending extreme poverty worldwide. It committed itself to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with MDG #5 focused on improving maternal health. It set a target of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015, and in 2007 added a second target to MDG #5 of universal access to reproductive-health services.

But the U.S. and other countries have failed to make the necessary investments to meet these goals. In fact, of the eight development goals, MDG #5 has made the least progress and is the most underfunded.

The role of the U.S. is particularly significant: At one point, the U.S. was the leader in supplying international family-planning and reproductive-health-services funding directly to 60 developing nations through USAID programs, and was one of the largest donors to UNFPA, which supports maternal and reproductive-health programs in 154 countries. But Bush cut off all support to UNFPA for seven years (as George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had), even though Congress had approved up to $34 million for each of those years. He also imposed crippling restrictions on USAID-funded programs, including issuing a Global Gag Rule against counseling about, referring for, or even advocating for legal abortion.

The Obama administration has begun to turn this around. It re-funded UNFPA, increasing the amount to $55 million the first year and $50 million in the current fiscal year. Obama also repealed the Global Gag Rule and proposed increasing funding for USAID international family planning and reproductive health to $648.5 million in the 2011 fiscal year. But it’s still not enough, and there’s catching up to do.

To meet its obligations, the U.S. should spend an estimated $3 billion annually for reproductive health and family planning globally (that’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the annual U.S. defense budget). Moreover, the harmful and ineffectual abstinence-only programs established during the Bush administration in both international family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention under PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) must be eliminated.

The lack of political will to make these necessary investments means that millions of women and girls each year are robbed of the full potential of their lives. Preventing unwanted pregnancies enables women and girls to seek education, to work to support themselves and to participate fully in the building and development of their communities. Being able to obtain skilled care during pregnancy and childbirth allows women and their children to stay healthy. Ultimately, the annual loss of hundreds of thousands of women and girls has a destructive impact on entire countries, tearing at the economic and social fabric.

It’s time for the global community to fulfill its promises; the goal of ensuring universal access to reproductive and maternal-health care is within our grasp.

Excerpted from the article “Time to Save Women’s Lives” in the Spring issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered to your door, join the Ms. community.

FRANCINE COEYTAUX is a longtime women’s health advocate and a member of the board of directors of Women’s Dignity.
BELLE TAYLOR-MCGHEE, a former television news journalist,is president of the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom and former president and CEO of the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health.

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