WHA Told Maternal Mortality Not Improved by Legalizing Abortion

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 19, 2011   |   4:04PM   |   Geneva, Switzerland

Attendees of a global health conference in Geneva, Switzerland were given information today showing legalizing abortion does nothing to improve maternal mortality for women living in developing nations that lack access to improved medical care — which is the best method of reducing such rates.

A new analysis of research from the World Health Organization, United Nations, The Lancet and other resources was released today at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva by two pro-life organizations, the National Right to Life Committee and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Global Outreach. Leaders of both organizations called for a renewed emphasis on improving health care for women as the only sure means of reducing maternal mortality.

“We have known for decades that most maternal deaths can be prevented with adequate nutrition, basic health care, and good obstetric care throughout pregnancy, at delivery, and postpartum,” said Jeanne Head, R.N., National Right to Life vice-president for international affairs and UN representative.  “Yet some in the international community have focused their resources primarily on legalizing abortion at the expense of women’s lives.”

MCCL Global Outreach Executive Director Scott Fischbach added, “Our analysis presents clear, factual evidence to repudiate the claim that legalized abortion reduces maternal mortality.”

The analysis, “Why Legalized Abortion Is Not Good for Women’s Health,” compares the impact of improved medical care and legalized abortion on maternal mortality rates in several countries.  Maternal deaths declined sharply in the United States, England and Wales through the 1930s and 1940s, for example, coinciding with advancements in maternal health care, obstetric techniques, antibiotics and in the general health status of women.  This occurred long before the widespread legalization of abortion.

Chile sharply reduced its maternal mortality rate even after its prohibition of abortion in 1989, and now has the lowest maternal mortality rate in Latin America.  Of the four countries that reduced their maternal mortality rate the most from 1990-2008, three have maintained bans on abortion.

According Dr. Elard Koch, an epidemiologist on the faculty of medicine at the University of Chile, Chile’s promotion of “safe pregnancy” measures such as “prenatal detection” and accessibility to professional birth attendants in a hospital setting are primarily responsible for the decrease in maternal mortality.

The maternal mortality rate declined from 275 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1960 to 18.7 deaths in 2000, the largest reduction in any Latin country.

Because Chile is a nation that protects unborn life in its penal laws and constitution, the decline is therefore not attributable to access to legal abortion. In fact, the preliminary study shows, maternal mortality in Chile declined over the last century regardless of whether abortion was legal or illegal. Chile tightened its restrictions on abortion in the late 1980s.

Said Koch, “From 1960 onwards, there has been a breakthrough in the public health system and primary care” in Chile, with resources devoted to the development of “highly trained personnel, the construction of many primary health centers and the increase of schooling of the population.”

In the developing world, the danger of legalized abortion is profound, the analysis found, and Head explains: “Women generally at risk because they lack access to a doctor, hospital, or antibiotics before abortion’s legalization will face those same circumstances after legalization. And if legalization triggers a higher demand for abortion, as it has in most countries, more injured women will compete for those scarce medical resources.  The number of abortion-related maternal deaths may actually increase.”

MCCL GO and NRLC called upon the WHA to focus its resources on the improvement of women’s health care in the developing world.

“We urge the World Health Assembly to adopt measures to significantly reduce maternal mortality in the developing world by improving women’s health care,” Fischbach added.  “We call upon the WHA to save lives, not expend endless energy and resources in areas where there is profound disagreement, such as the legalization of abortion.”

Last September, a report titled “Trends in maternal mortality” and released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank found 546,000 women died in 1990 during childbirth and 358,000 died in 2008, without a corresponding legalization of abortion in countries on continents such as Africa and South America.

The report appears to highlight how better access to medicine and medical technology is responsible for improving maternal mortality numbers, not abortion. The risk of a woman in a developing country dying from a pregnancy-related cause during her lifetime is about 36 times higher compared to a woman living in a developed country, the report noted.

The report shows 10 countries with maternal mortality ratios equal to or over 100 in 1990, are on track with an annual decline of 5.5% between 1990 and 2008.

The study shows progress in sub-Saharan Africa where maternal mortality decreased by 26% in nations that are almost all pro-life. In Asia, the number of maternal deaths is estimated to have dropped from 315,000 to 139,000 between 1990 and 2008, a 52% decrease.

The new WHO numbers follow a seminal report in the British medical journal The Lancet in April showing a dramatic decline in maternal deaths worldwide. The Lancet reported 526,300 maternal deaths worldwide in 1980 and 342,900 deaths in 2008, a reduction of 35 percent.

The analysis is available in English and Spanish (and soon in French) at the MCCL GO website, www.mccl-go.org.