05/20/2009 03:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing Maternal Mortality, Changing the World

Nicholas Kristof, in his usual direct, unflinching yet compassionate writing, reminded us again this week that childbirth is a dangerous activity in much of the world. This Mom Didn't Have to Die, by Nicholas Kristof. In fact, every minute a woman dies from a complication of pregnancy or childbirth. That's 10 million women in the last generation who are not with us because bringing forth life meant losing their own.

Most health indicators have improved over the last 20 years, but not maternal mortality. It continues to plague women, mostly low-income women. And that's probably because there are so many factors that must be addressed. Smallpox required health care workers to immunize a vast segment of the population, an admittedly large task, but then those people were safe.

In contrast, a woman can reproduce over 30 years of her life and each pregnancy presents a new risk. Women die because they have children too young, have too many in a row, have inadequate care or simply no way to get to help if something goes wrong.

The crux of the problem, as Kristof elegantly stated is that "women can be saved in childbirth -- but only if their lives become a priority." In some remote parts of the world, it's not out of the question for a man to decide that it's easier and cheaper to get a new wife than to save the one who's hemorrhaging.

Here in the U.S., we can be mothers, lawyers, construction workers, volunteers, foodies, whatever. In many parts of the world, women are wife, mother. Period. They are expected to leave school, marry and begin having children immediately, leaving them little opportunity to participate - economically or politically - in their societies.

It's this cycle that traps women. They are unable to contribute to society beyond childbearing and so they are viewed as having lower status. Their lower status means their survival is valued less. As Kristof pointed out, "It's pretty clear that if men were dying at these rates, the United Nations Security Council would be holding urgent consultations..."

If we could crack maternal mortality, we would truly change the world. (Or if we changed the world - or at least women's place in it -- we could crack maternal mortality.)

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, provides women's health care and promotes the rights of women in 150 countries. It's the largest international source of such assistance. Among its successes is a significant reduction in maternal death in seven countries a single decade and the provision of safe, modern contraception to 500,000 women annually. Much of the work of UNFPA comes from local women who change their own societies a little every day. Join us and the women of the world. Declare your support at