A Maternal Mortality FAIL in the U.S.

March 12, 2010

By Alicia Ely Yamin

mothersilocontrast-copyWhile the Republicans cynically stall efforts on health reform to gain political advantage and the Democrats wrangle over special deals, too many people continue to die in this country because they lack access to care. A report released today from Amnesty International highlights the scandalous fact that every day in the richest country in the world 2 to 3 women die in pregnancy and childbirth.

As Deadly Delivery: THE MATERNAL HEALTH CARE CRISIS IN THE USA notes, the U.S. “spends more than any other country on health care, and more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care. Despite this, women in the USA have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 40 other countries. “ For example, the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth in the U.S. is five times greater than in Greece.

Perhaps even more scandalous, “African-American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. These rates and disparities have not improved in more than 20 years.”

Amnesty’s report rightly asserts that this is not just a public health scandal; it reflects widespread violations of women’s human rights, including the right to life, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Patterns of marginalization and exclusion in this society are exacerbated by a discriminatory and dysfunctional health system.

Throughout the health care reform debates, there has been scarcely a mention of health care being a fundamental human right. But the fact is that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not recognize a legal entitlement to health care.

Despite the fact that health care is treated as a commodity and not a right in this country, the US is bound by some international legal obligations that bear on addressing the root causes of maternal mortality. Amnesty’s report points out that the US is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And, just as with prohibitions on torture, international standards in this area do apply to the United States.

At the United Nations this week, the Commission on the Status on Women is celebrating its fifty-fourth session, which is a particularly important one because this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Conference where then-first lady Hillary Clinton proclaimed “women’s rights are human rights.” At this session the US delegation, together with other states, introduced a resolution to recognize the need for strengthening efforts to combat maternal mortality around the world. Amnesty’s report vividly shows that the U.S. urgently needs to start strengthening its efforts at home.

Join us in calling on President Obama to establish an Office of Maternal Health to lead government effort to reduce the appalling U.S. death rate for women having babies.

Alicia Ely Yamin is the Joseph H. Flom Fellow on Global Health and Human Rights at Harvard Law School and on the Advisory Boards of the International Initiative on Maternal Mortality and Human Rights.  She serves as a special advisor to Amnesty International on maternal mortality and human rights.  She also blogs on human rights issues for change.org.