Women worldwide die from pregnancy-related causes.

Each year at least a half-million women worldwide die from pregnancy-related causes. Fully 99% of these deaths occur in the Third World, where complications arising from pregnancy and illegal abortions are the leading killers of women in their 20s and 30s. The World Health Organization (WHO) officials caution that maternal deaths -- those resulting directly or indirectly from pregnancy within 42 days of childbirth, induced abortion, or miscarriage -- may ACTUALLY BE TWICE THE ESTIMATED FIGURES. What is more, for every woman who dies, many more suffer serious, often long-term health problems. That bearing life brings death to so many women is a distressing irony. It is even more distressing given that family planning and preventive medicine could substantially reduce these loses.

               DEATHS PER 100,000    STUDY REGION

 Ethiopia            3,500 *(1)      Urban, 1984
 Bangledish          3,000 *(2)      National, 1983
 Senegal               700 *(1)      Rural, 1983
 India             400-500 *(2)      National, 1984
 Egypt                 190           Rural, 1983-83

 Romania               175           National, 1982
 Mexico                103               "     1978
 Thialand               81               "     1981
 Chile                  73               "     1980
 United States          10 *(1)          "     1979
 Norway                  2               "     1981


*(1) Unknown whether deaths from abortion included.
*(2) Deaths from abortions not included
Source: World Health Organization Maternal Mortality Rates
Illegal abortion is one of the major direct causes of material death. 44% of women in the developing world (outside of China) live in countries where abortion is allowed only to save the mother's life. Another 10% live in countries where abortion is totally prohibited. Sadly, millions of women unable to obtain a legal abortion on the basis of life-threatening circumstances have subsequently died from the complications of an illegal abortion. Those who advocate restrictive abortion policies rarely acknowledge this toll on women's lives.

Estimates of the annual number of deaths due to abortion complications range from 155,000 to 204,000 women worldwide. Abortion-related deaths are especially common among poor and illiterate women living in countries with strict abortion laws. In Latin America, where legal abortion is generally restricted to cases of rape or endangering of the woman's life, up to half of maternal deaths appear to be due to illegal abortions.

International support for family planning has been considerably weakened in recent years by changes in U.S. policy. By the time the world's population surpassed 5 billion in 1987, the U.S. had abdicated its role as a leading supporter of reproductive rights worldwide. Political and societal disputes have converged with fiscal constraints to cut funding for contraceptive research and for both domestic and international family planning. This policy change has set worldwide efforts to reduce fertility back by several years, dimming hopes of achieving population stabilization by the end of the next century.

The U.S. has scaled back its commitment to international population assistance 20% between 1985 and 1987. More significantly, the United States no longer contributes to the U.N. Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) or to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. At the International Conference on Population in Mexico City, the Reagan administration set in motion a policy denying funds to any international organization that alerted women that abortion might be one of their options, thereby eliminating the very family planning assistance that reduces abortion rates!! UNFPA funds were withdrawn as a result of U.S. opposition to grants it made to China. More than 340 million couples in 65 countries are affected by this short-sighted policy.

Three groups of women face the highest risk of pregnancy-related deaths -- those at either end of their reproductive cycle, those who bear children in rapid succession, and those who have more than four children. Due to biological factors, women under 19 and over 35 are susceptible to complications of pregnancy. Women giving birth to children spaced less than a year apart are twice as likely to die from preganancy-related causes than those who have children two or more years apart.

At least half of all maternal deaths can be averted through a combined strategy of family planning, primary health care and legal abortion. According to researchers Beverly Winikoff and Maureen Sullivan of The Population Council, a fertility rate reduction of 25-35% resulting from more widely available family planning would also lower maternal mortality by 1/4. Making abortions legal and safe could reduce the toll an additional 20-25%. Making all pregnancies safer thru increased investments in prenatal health care and reducing the number of high-risk pregnancies would prevent another 20-25% of deaths. Winikoff and Sullivan point out that while, theoretically, this three- pronged strategy could reduce maternal mortality by 3/4, a 50% decrease is a more realistic expectation, given prevailing social and political conditions, such as long standing cultural desires for large family size and opposition to legalizing abortion.

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