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Rita O’Connor

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Giving Back on Mother's Day

Posted: 05/06/11 12:11 PM ET

This Mother's Day, Americans are expected to spend more than $16 billion in flowers, meals, jewelry and other gifts for American moms, according to the National Retail Federation. It seems right to celebrate our moms, the women who always cared for us, shaped our outlooks and influenced our lives beyond limits we often don't care to admit. But meanwhile we recently turned our backs on many other mothers around the world.

Congress just passed a 2011 spending bill that cuts $33.5 million from women's health care programs. Such cuts will have a ripple effect on women everywhere -- most deeply on the nearly 1,000 women who die every day in pregnancy and childbirth in the developing world. Thousands more barely survive, and millions are left with debilitating injuries -- like obstetric fistula.

Obstetric fistula is a horrifying condition that results from prolonged obstructed labor, when a woman struggles to give birth for hours, sometimes days, of agony without access to health care. The baby usually dies, and the mother is left with an opening between her bladder, vagina and sometimes her rectum. This leads to uncontrolled leaking of bodily waste. Sometimes the woman is also left crippled from nerve damage. In most cases, she is shunned by her family, ostracized by her community and resigned to a life of isolation, despair and repeated infection.

Fistula devastates the lives of more than two million women worldwide every year, most of them very young, undermining families and weakening communities in the developing world. An estimated 50 to 100,000 new cases occur annually, even though this tragedy can easily be turned into renewed hope for a healthy and productive life.

Fistula repair surgery costs only $300 and is 90 percent successful. Obstetric fistula can also be prevented by known, proven and realistic measures, such as access to emergency medical facilities equipped to do caesarean sections. Education that keeps young girls in school and laws to outlaw child marriage can save many more.

Why should a childbirth injury that was eradicated a century ago in the northern hemisphere continue to afflict mothers today? A mother is a being of priceless value, no matter where she is. When we help mothers deliver safe and healthy babies, we help humanity.

One way to give that gift this year is H.R. 949, the Obstetric Fistula Prevention, Treatment, Hope and Dignity Restoration Act of 2011, recently introduced to Congress by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). The bill authorizes the president to provide assistance to prevent and treat obstetric fistula through increasing access to health care including voluntary family planning, building local capacity to combat the condition and improving national health systems.

The bill also addresses underlying social and economic inequities, supporting reintegration and training programs to help survivors return to full and productive lives after surgery. Empowered women can do more for their societies, helping to break the cycle of fistula by increasing the number of trained assistants during labor and educating families on the importance of seeking routine health care and emergency care for childbirth complications.

The United Nations estimates the lifetime risk of an American woman dying from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth is just 1 in 2,100. For a woman in sub-Saharan Africa, that risk is 1 in 31. This bill would go a long way toward reducing maternal deaths in developing nations and to restoring hope, health and dignity to the women who suffer from birth injuries.

Why not celebrate your mom by helping give the gift of life to another mother? Ask your member of Congress to support H.R. 949, so mothers everywhere can live the life of health, hope and dignity they deserve.