Maternal Health: The Church’s Role
"I came so that they could have life-indeed, so that they could live to the fullest" (John 10:10).
Motherhood is sacred. Mothers are important figures in our biblical tradition. Women like Eve, Hagar, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are remembered for their role as bearers of new life. But within the sacred texts, stories also tell of maternal tragedy and loss. Both Rachel (Genesis 35:16-20) and the wife of Phinehas (1 Samuel 4:19-20) died after prolonged and difficult labors.
Tragically, stories of maternal death are commonplace today. For many women, especially those living in poverty and in developing countries, giving birth is dangerous and life-threatening. Worldwide maternal mortality is a leading cause of death for women of child-bearing age. Every 90 seconds a woman dies somewhere in the world from complications during pregnancy or childbirth; for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer disability.
The main causes of maternal mortality include infection, hemorrhaging, high blood pressure, and obstructed labor. They are mostly preventable.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that he came so that they could live life to the fullest. God desires that every mother, every child, and every family not only survive, but thrive. Tragically, survival is often a daily struggle for those who lack access to basic services and care. God calls us to respond to the suffering in the world, to love our neighbors throughout the world. As followers of Christ, we are members of the same body. The loss of one member is a loss for all.
The global community is taking steps to address the tragedy of maternal mortality. Members of the United Nations established in 2000 the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that set targets for improving health, reducing disease and poverty, and ensuring human rights of all people. The fifth MDG, to improve maternal health, sets a goal of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015.
Maternal deaths have dropped by a third since 1990. While such progress is significant, increased efforts must be implemented globally to reach the 2015 target of 75 percent reduction. Maternal deaths exist in both developed and developing countries. An example among developed countries is that maternal mortality in the United States is on the rise. US maternal deaths have doubled since 1987.
Maternal mortality is a moral tragedy. Nearly all of the more than 350,000 annual maternal deaths occur in the developing world. Many factors contribute to this vast health inequity.
In the developing world many women of child-bearing age lack access to reproductive health services such as prenatal care, postnatal care, and family-planning services. This is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. With no hospital or clinic nearby, women customarily give birth at home in unsanitary conditions. This puts both the woman and her baby at risk of infection. If a woman experiences a life-threatening complication while in labor at home, she may not be able to reach emergency care in time. Situations like these could be prevented if women had access to health information and medical care.
Unintended pregnancy is also a health concern. Globally, more than 200 million women would like to avoid or delay pregnancy, but they lack access to modern contraceptive services. This results in millions of unintended pregnancies every year. Supply shortages, lack of education, misinformation, and cultural barriers all contribute to this unmet need. Without access to contraceptives, women are unable to manage the timing and birth spacing of their children. This is of particular concern to women who have given birth within the past two years and those who are HIV-positive: The former's bodies may not have fully recovered, and the latter's immunity is compromised.
Birth spacing is a key health intervention for reducing both maternal and infant mortality. When a woman spaces her pregnancies at least three years apart, she is more likely to have a healthy delivery, and her children are more likely to survive infancy. If a woman becomes pregnant too soon after giving birth, her body does not have time to recover and her risk for complications increases. To be able to space her pregnancies in the healthiest manner, a woman must have access to safe, modern family-planning services.
Providing family-planning services to a woman is inexpensive, costing approximately $2 a year. The direct and indirect benefits, however, of women planning their families are priceless and countless: smaller family size, better health for both children and mother, less economic burden on the family, and women's continued economic contribution to the greater community. By meeting all the unmet need for family planning, maternal mortality rates would drop by a third, and the need for abortion would be reduced significantly. Furthermore, the use of condoms reduces the risk of infection for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. In particular, access to female condoms is crucial for empowering women to initiate their own protection against these infections.
Many cultural differences complicate this issue. Having a large family is a sign of honor in many parts of the world. Having many children, especially boys, is a showcase of a man's virility. Men who expect their wives to bear many children may not consider or support birth spacing or family planning.
The expectation of giving birth to many children comes not only from the husband, but also from other family members, particularly the mother-in-law. In some areas of the developing world, the mother-in-law makes the decision regarding contraceptive use. Such societal and familial pressures often conflict with a woman's personal desires regarding her fertility and can adversely affect her health.
Marrying age also affects maternal health. Child marriage is prevalent in many cultures. Girls marry and begin giving birth in early adolescence. If these young females are not practicing family planning, they could have multiple children before their 20th birthday. Young women not fully developed physically at the time of marriage are at great risk for complications such as obstetric fistula, a birth injury that leaves them incontinent.
Women are crying out for not only their own survival but also the survival of their families and communities. They deserve access to services and care that empower their personal decision-making. As a global church, we are called to eradicate systems of oppression and marginalization that inhibit women's well-being.
We call upon all local congregations to:
1. Support United Methodist projects around the world working on maternal health and family planning;
2. Advocate with policy makers at all levels to increase access to maternal health and family-planning services; and
3. Support local health initiatives that expand access to information and services for women's health.
We call upon the General Board of Church and Society to continue placing a programmatic emphasis on education and advocacy for the next quadrennium on maternal health.
See Social Principles, ¶ 162V.
From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.