The Human Rights Council passed its fifth resolution on preventable maternal deaths and pregnancy complications recently, reaffirming the steadfast commitment of the United Nations toward eliminating preventable maternal deaths. Led by Burkina Faso, Colombia and New Zealand, the resolution was passed unanimously by the council in Geneva.
The resolution urges countries to adopt human rights based approaches to address preventable maternal deaths and related complications, following the technical guidelines issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2012. The guidelines advise countries to tackle these issues by paying attention to the underlying social factors that hinder women’s rights to safe pregnancy and childbirth and by enhancing government accountability to realize women’s fundamental human right to quality maternal health care, among other human rights based measures.
Like others before it, the resolution was watered down to meet objections of governments opposed to sexual and reproductive rights. Specifically, critical language calling on states to use a human rights based approach to providing sexual and reproductive services for all women was removed at the last hour.
Excluding language that specifically protects sexual and reproductive health and rights from these resolutions, or any policy or legislation for that matter, seriously undermines efforts to reduce preventable pregnancy complications and maternal deaths. Governments need to stop dragging their feet and create meaningful health policies that promote safe pregnancy and childbirth for every woman.
Although there has been a 45 percent decline in maternal deaths worldwide since 1990, 800 women and girls still die every day from pregnancy-related complications, and women in rural areas and minority groups face a disproportionately higher risk of dying or having serious health consequences from pregnancy and childbirth.
A recent report by the Center for Reproductive Rights, titled “From Risk to Rights: Realizing States’ Obligations to Prevent and Address Maternal Mortality,” examined how states’ failure to eliminate preventable maternal death became recognized as a fundamental human rights violation. The report cites the wide disparities in maternal mortality ratios among nations and even within countries. Although the likelihood of dying in childbirth is greater in developing countries (230 per 100,000 live births) than in developed countries (16 per 100,000 live births), these numbers mask the rampant rates of maternal death that affect minority groups in developed countries.
For example, immigrant women in the Netherlands have more than double the maternal mortality rate of the population overall. In Australia, aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are almost three times more likely to die during pregnancy than nonindigenous women.
And despite the United States spending roughly $98 million a year on hospitalization during pregnancy and childbirth — twice as much as any other country –the maternal death rate has more than doubled since 1990, says a joint report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Sister Song and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. In Chicksaw County, Miss., for example, the maternal mortality ratio for women of color (595 per 100,000 live births) is higher than rates in countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya and Rwanda.
Minority and poor women worldwide have been unable to get the critical reproductive health care they need, as governments fail to prioritize these areas in their health systems. International human-rights bodies have made clear that governments must provide quality maternal health care to all women and have held them accountable for the exclusion of marginalized groups.
In 2011, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women declared Brazil responsible for the maternal death of Alyne da Silva Pimentel, an Afro-Brazilian woman who was repeatedly denied timely medical care — even though doctors knew she had a high-risk pregnancy and an obstetric emergency. In its ruling, the committee noted that the woman’s human rights had been violated and ordered the state to provide reparations to her family and carry out general measures to prevent maternal deaths. The monetary reparations given to Alyne da Silva Pimentel’s mother earlier this year reflect a start in the right direction, and we hope Brazil moves quickly to implement the necessary health policies to reduce preventable maternal deaths.
Women must receive essential medical care regardless of where they live, their race or socioeconomic status. Although the Human Rights Council failed to sufficiently incorporate human rights into the latest maternal mortality resolution, the UN as a whole has recognized preventable maternal deaths as a human rights violation and urged governments to take positive measures to advance these rights.
If governments truly want to promote safe pregnancy and childbirth, they will put their money where their mouth is and institute health policies that tackle preventable maternal deaths and hold themselves accountable to improving women’s health.
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Rebecca Brown is director of global advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Previously, she was deputy director of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), where she oversaw the organization’s program work and coordinated the Women and ESCR Working Group. Brown graduated cum laude from CUNY School of Law and served on the CUNY Law Review. She served in the Peace Corps in Gambia and received her B.A. in political science and women’s studies from Hunter College, also cum laude.