Keeping Maternal Mortality on the Agenda at UN Human Rights Meeting

November 3, 2010

Linda Coale died of a blood clot a week after giving birth to her son, Ben, by c-section. The infant welcome packet included extensive information about acclimatizing pets to a new baby, but had failed to adequately alert her to warning signs of complications, despite the heightened risk due to her surgery.

On Friday, the United States will appear before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) for its “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR).  The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years.

I have come to Geneva to monitor the US’s participation in the UPR and to educate both the US government and those of other member states, on Amnesty International’s concerns about the state of human rights in the United States. In April, Amnesty submitted a written report to the HRC detailing our US human rights concerns, ranging from the use of the death penalty, to the need to establish a commission of inquiry into all war on terror-related detention policies and practices, the need to bar racial profiling in law enforcement, and the need for a human rights executive order to help establish a domestic human rights infrastructure.

Today I had the opportunity to speak about another tragic human rights issue that Amnesty has been focusing on: maternal mortality in the United States.  At the event, hosted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, I featured the findings of our report, Deadly Delivery: The maternal health care crisis in the USA and discussed the maternal health crisis in the United States, particularly among marginalized communities.

Every person has the human right to the highest attainable standard of health. Preventable maternal mortality violates a woman’s right to health. Unfortunately, the human right to maternal health care is not being met in the US – especially in marginalized communities. Tragically, over half of maternal deaths are preventable in the US – making maternal mortality a human rights issue which leaves countless children without mothers and families without their mothers, sisters, and wives each year.

The audience was appalled at the statistics:

  • 2 to 3 women in the United States die each day during or after childbirth
  • 34,000 experience “near-misses” each year
  • Women in the US are more likely to die of complications resulting from pregnancy or childbirth than women in 49 other countries

The inequities in health outcomes are equally as shocking as women of color, low-income women, Indigenous women, immigrant women and women with limited English proficiency all face additional risks. For example, black women are nearly four times more likely to die than white women. This figure increases in high risk pregnancies – where, in those situations, black women are five and a half times more likely to die.

Government accountability and oversight of maternal health has thus far been inadequate but is the key to solving this crisis. Through our Demand Dignity Campaign, Amnesty International has been highlighting the need for increased action by both federal and state governments.

I concluded my presentation today with a discussion of the Moms for the 21st Century Act and a call to action! To take your own action to help solve this human rights crisis, click here to contact your Member of Congress.