Rep. Betty McCollum speaks about reducing maternal

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–On the day that President Obama unveiled his budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and advocates gathered at the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to press Congress to do more to prevent an everyday event that causes millions of needless deaths around the world: childbirth.

"When mothers survive childbirth, they give birth to healthy families, healthy communities and healthy nations," Theresa Shaver, president and executive director of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, a global organization based in Washington, D.C., said Thursday at a conference to kick off the campaign.

Helping mothers survive childbirth has far-reaching implications, Shaver said.

When a mother dies in childbirth, her baby is less likely to survive infancy, and her other children are more likely to drop out of school, lose access to health care and even die, according to the alliance. If she survives, she is more likely to raise healthy, educated children, which in turn helps stabilize her country’s economy and political state.

Pelosi was unable to attend the event, but other lawmakers gathered in her office included Democratic Reps. Lois Capps and Doris Matsui of California and Betty McCollum of Minnesota, and Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio.

The event Thursday launches a campaign–called Mothers Day Every Day–to spur U.S. lawmakers to put more money in foreign aid to reduce maternal mortality. Specifically, they hope the United States will be a greater force in a global initiative to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent and to provide women around the world with universal access to reproductive health services by 2015.

Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget includes a $634 billion plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system and $10 million in family planning funding for the United States over the next two years.

On Wednesday the House also approved a budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year that includes $545 million for family planning and reproductive health programs for fiscal 2009, including $50 million to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which operates family planning and maternal health programs in over 150 countries around the world.

Little Progress to Reduce Maternal Deaths

While progress has been made on health issues like treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality rates have remained stubbornly high. Between 1990 and 2005, the global maternal mortality rate dropped less than 1 percent, according to the alliance.

In the United States, about 1 in 4,800 women die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Death rates are especially high for African American women, who are almost four times as likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth complications than their white peers.

These statistics put the United States behind 40 other countries–including Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Czech Republic–in the global maternal mortality ranking. The United States tied with the eastern European country of Belarus in the latest ranking.

536,000 Die Each Year

Worldwide, more than 536,000 women die from complications in pregnancy or childbirth, which averages about one woman every minute of every day, according to a 2005 estimate by the Geneva-based World Health Organization and other international health groups. The vast majority of these deaths occur in developing countries, where pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for young women.

In the world’s poorest regions, a woman’s lifetime chance of dying in pregnancy is 1 in 7, according to the White Ribbon Alliance.

"Women around the world should not have to go into labor in fear," said Mary Jo Kilroy, a newly elected Democrat from Ohio who spoke at the campaign’s kick-off conference.

Public health advocates say solutions to the problem are simple and affordable.

Providing pregnant women with universal access to skilled health care providers during and after childbirth could reduce the global maternal mortality rate by 80 percent, according to the World Health Organization. And giving women more access to drugs can help prevent post-partum hemorrhage and pre-eclampsia, Shaver said.

"It’s so easy to fix," added Mary Matalin, a Republican political strategist and media consultant who spoke at the Thursday conference.

Pressing for Women’s Health Needs

A week ago a group of Democratic female lawmakers introduced a resolution calling on Congress to take women’s health care needs into consideration as it weighs health care reform legislation.

And it comes about a month after Obama repealed the so-called global gag rule, the policy that barred overseas organizations that receive money from the U.S. government from performing abortions, providing abortion counseling or lobbying their governments for fewer restrictions on abortion.

At the event, lawmakers announced their own plans to introduce legislation to address maternal and infant death rates in the United States and abroad.

Capps, a former nurse and the outgoing chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group of female lawmakers, is drafting legislation that would help health care researchers collect maternal mortality data to improve access to quality health care and encourage medical professionals to share their information. It would also provide more training for skilled health professionals in developing countries and work to integrate maternal health into existing health programs.

Capps said she plans to introduce the bill this spring.

Meanwhile, McCollum said she will soon reintroduce legislation to increase the United States’ financial investment in reducing maternal, infant and child mortality worldwide. The bill would provide increased funding to promote exclusive breastfeeding and improve access to antibiotics, vaccines, bed nets and vitamins.

Schmidt said she plans to introduce legislation to address mothers’ mental health as well.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at