Kathy Petersen’s Blog

Abortion and Maternal Mortality

Posted in abortion by Kathy on February 28, 2008

I just recently read a blog decrying the recent failed Tennessee bill that would have increased restrictions on abortions in the state. (It was the first I’ve heard of it, so I don’t quite have the details down.) Among the ridiculous statements the blogger made was that anyone who supported this bill hates women and wants them to die from childbirth, that US maternal mortality rates are at third-world levels (and that not having abortions is the reason for the high US maternal mortality rate), and that pregnancy is dangerous for teenagers.

As to the first statement, the Senator that introduced the bill is a woman!

As to the second, it’s just simply a lie. I agree that maternal mortality rates are too high in the US, but they are not third-world levels–check out this info from UNICEF. The U.S. maternal mortality is there stated to be 11/100,000, for the year 2005, but it is currently believed to be about 13. Here are a few countries’ maternal mortality rates (but the information for all countries is there on that link; most of the countries’ numbers are estimates, due to poor or absent record-keeping in these places): Australia is 4; Belgium is 8; Brazil is 110; Burundi is 1100; Ethiopia is 720; Japan is 6; North Korea is 370, and South Korea is 14. Sierra Leone is the worst, with 2100/100,000. At the bottom of the page, it groups countries by level of development, and shows the average maternal mortality rate:

8/100,000 for industrialized countries

450/100,000 for developing countries

870/100,000 for least developed countries

The U.S. death rate of 13/100,000 is higher than average, but nowhere near “third-world levels.” I’ve further heard it said that what skews the U.S. stats compared to other modern nations is the racial differences between the US and European nations–that when you compare maternal mortality of white U.S. women to white Europeans, the rates are similar. If you look at any birth statistics from the US, you’ll notice that blacks are consistently worse than whites regardless of rank. I’m not making any racist statements–I tend to think that it’s because blacks are more likely to be poor than whites (and poverty is a huge factor in health and mortality), or else that their quality of care is worse due to biased care-givers. Some childbirth activists say that part of the reason for the higher U.S. maternal mortality rate is that we are the only (or almost the only) country who does not have universal health care and socialized medicine. (Personally, I’m okay with that–I don’t like socialism.) Natural-birth proponents note that the U.S. has the highest rate of obstetrician-attended birth, and wonder if they use routine interventions that increase the risk of mortality, and point to cases of maternal death that are directly attributed to hospital birth (such as the woman who died from an epidural, and the two teachers who died within a few weeks of each other after C-sections).

Also from UNICEF is the following:

The most common fatal complication is post-partum haemorrhage. Sepsis, complications of unsafe abortion, prolonged or obstructed labour, and the hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, especially eclampsia, claim further lives….

The foundations for maternal risk are often laid in girlhood. Women whose growth has been stunted by chronic malnutrition are vulnerable to obstructed labour. Anaemia predisposes to haemorrhage and sepsis during delivery and has been implicated in at least 20 per cent of post-partum maternal deaths in Africa and Asia. The risk of childbirth is even greater for women who have undergone female genital mutilation, an estimated 2 million girls every year……

Maternal deaths are also relatively rare events, even in high-mortality areas…..

Most U.S. women are not affected by these third-world conditions, so “prophylactic” abortion cannot be considered as life-saving for most of them. Assuming 13/100,000 deaths is accurate and there are about 4 million births per year, then about 520 women die each year due to maternal complications. The U.S. does need to work on reducing maternal mortality, but increasing abortion in the U.S. would not help much if at all. To put it another way, 100,000 babies would need to be aborted to save the lives of 13 women.

As to the statement that pregnancy in teenagers is dangerous–it’s the same skewing of the truth as elsewhere in the blog. Here is information from the Wikipedia entry on teenage pregnancy:

Pregnant teenagers face many of the same obstetrics issues as women in their 20s and 30s. However, there are additional medical concerns for younger mothers, particularly those under 15 and those living in developing countries. For mothers between 15 and 19, age in itself is not a risk factor, but additional risks may be associated with socioeconomic factors.

So, while the above statement may be considered to be accurate for third-world countries, it is not primarily the age issue as it is the other factors–poverty, social implications from teenage pregnancy, etc. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of mortality in women/girls aged 15-19 in developing countries, but not in the United States. Hence, abortion should not be considered “therapeutic” for these girls, nor should the lack of abortion be considered to raise the maternal death rate.

Worst-case scenario is Sierra Leone, in which 100,000 children would have to be aborted to save the lives of 2100 women. However, each abortion would be a “one-time only” thing. Far better would it be to attack the reasons for maternal mortality, especially poverty and poverty-based problems like nutritional deficiencies. This would not only avoid the moral and ethical issues of abortion, but would “teach a man how to fish” and yield long-lasting results.


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