As Mother's Day approaches, it's fitting to keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths occurring annually — mostly in third-world countries.
Our Jewish heritage appreciates mothers; honoring one’s mother, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments.
This Sunday, we celebrate mothers for giving life, nurturing and lovingly raising families. In my family, we have a new mother this year — my daughter-in-law, who gave birth to our little granddaughter six months ago.
Many of our biblical mothers longed for children. Once they conceived, they faced the next hurdle — childbirth. Recall that our matriarch Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.
The loss of a woman in childbirth is a compound tragedy. A husband loses his wife; if there are older children, they are now motherless; and if the baby makes it, its survival is in peril.
Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, a late 19th/early 20th century scholar, teaches that one reason women are not included in the mitzvah of peru u’rvu (to reproduce), Genesis 9:7, is that God’s law and the Torah’s ways are “ways of pleasantness and all of her paths are peace (Mishlei 3:17), and the Torah did not burden a Jew with an obligation that he is physically unable to handle … Therefore, regarding women, who are endangered during pregnancy and childbirth … the Torah did not obligate them to procreate.”
From our 21st century perch, expectant mothers and their family and friends worry about how the pregnancy, birth and baby will fare, but few of us have had direct experience with maternal deaths. This astounding achievement of modern medicine is largely taken for granted.
As a child in the 1950s, I knew that my cousin Steve’s birth mother died in childbirth in 1947, well before I was born. In preparing this column, I wondered if perhaps I’ve had a particularly sheltered life regarding maternal deaths, having never heard of any others.
Curious, I asked my Facebook friends: “Have you ever known a woman who died in childbirth?” More than 100 people responded, an informal — and skewed — sample of my well-educated, Jewish baby boomer demographic. The majority answered that they had not.
Though the U.S. maternal mortality rate is quite high for a rich country, maternal deaths are sufficiently rare in our world that many of us have lived six or seven decades without encountering one. What a blessing.
For the world’s poorest women residing in low-income countries with fragile, underfunded health care systems, the picture is more like the 19th century.
Each year, about 360,000 mothers die in childbirth around the world; 99 percent of those deaths occur in the developing world, generally from entirely preventable causes.
Before lowering maternal mortality rates was included in the U.N.’s 2000 Millennium Development Goals, many countries didn’t even record these deaths.
In researching my recent book of tools for empowering global women, I was shocked to learn that inexpensive, life-saving interventions simply don’t make it to laboring mothers who need them.
About 10 percent of maternal mortality is due to infections picked up during the birth. Safe Birth Kits, a ziplock bag of sundries to provide a sterile delivery and cord cutting, save mothers’ and babies’ lives.
Cleanbirth.org distributes these kits in Laos, a country with high maternal mortality.
Donors underwrite Clean Birth Kits and prenatal education. CleanBirth.org provides donors with beautiful contribution cards.
Post-partum hemorrhaging accounts for the majority of global maternal deaths; malnourished and/or anemic mothers are at especially high risk for excessive bleeding. The good news is that one dose of an inexpensive, well-known drug, Misoprostol, causes uterine contractions, stemming the bleeding and saving the mother.
Life For African Mothers, a 10-year-old Welsh non-governmental organization, has the straightforward mission of “providing cheap medications to save women’s lives,” distributing Misoprostol. Its founder, Angela Gorman, answered my Facebook query, sharing that she is named after her grandmother who died in childbirth 100 years ago.
This family trauma impelled her to action when she learned about Misoprostol and how many mothers’ lives she could help save. SavingMothers.org, based in Brooklyn, does similar work.
On this Mother’s Day, let’s honor and provide for all the world’s mothers, especially the most vulnerable moms among us. It’s a mitzvah!
Betsy Teutsch, a Mount Airy-based artist, is the author of the recently published 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women.