09/21/2010 02:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maternal Mortality: A Health Issue. A Feminist Issue. A Race Issue. America's Issue.

When you think of maternal mortality, what comes to mind?

For me, I think of countries like Afghanistan -- places where the birth rate is almost 6 children per woman, where contraceptives and family planning are not even considered, and where maternal care facilities are almost completely nonexistent because of the de facto prohibition on female care from a male doctor and the dearth of female health professionals. In Afghanistan, one in nine women die from pregnancy- or birth-related complications. This kind of travesty, and how we can help solve it (like by teaching midwifery to Afghan women), is what I think about when I think of maternal mortality.

Now, who thought about America?

The USA has a dirty little secret about maternal health care. Our rates of maternal mortality are some of the highest in the developed world -- higher than 40 other countries -- and they've actually been growing. This persists despite the fact that the USA spends more on health care than any country in the world, and that more of that money goes to maternal health than any other type of hospital care. Death rates have increased from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006. Improved maternal health is the UN's fifth Millennium Development Goal, with the target of reducing maternal mortality by 75% and achieving universal access to reproductive health care by 2015, yet the United States, the richest country in the world, is going backwards.

So where is the outrage? Where is the anger? In America, it seems obvious that every woman should feel entitled to a safe delivery and the best of modern medicine to ease her pregnancy. Why has no one noticed how shamefully America lags behind the rest of the world?

The answer is that the deaths in America are hidden. Maternal deaths are disproportionately concentrated in minority and low-income women, who often do not have access to the quality healthcare available to privileged women. A black woman is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Although women in labor cannot legally be turned away from a hospital, no such right exists for prenatal care. Prenatal care, like most health care in the United States, is very expensive, and 25% of women do not receive adequate prenatal care. These women are four times more likely to die than women who do receive adequate prenatal care.

Due to prohibitive costs, the basic right of health of mother and child has become a luxury for those who can afford it. Access to quality medical care, both during pregnancy and during delivery itself, should be a universal guarantee, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, language spoken, or immigration status. Personal background is irrelevant -- in the richest country in the world, it is a crying shame that marginalized women are at risk of losing their lives during pregnancy.

On Monday, September 20, Amnesty International brought the plight of these hidden women out into the light of day. AIUSA launched a Maternal Death Clock in Times Square at 9:00 AM, Monday, September 20, to remind the world that across the globe, one women dies in pregnancy every minute. AIUSA let world leaders and American leaders know that we are serious about ending preventable, pointless maternal deaths. If you couldn't be there, sign the Maternal Mortality Petition -- I just did. Without our action, maternal mortality is only rising. It is our responsibility to end this

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