A Matter of Life and Death: The Preventable Crisis of Maternal Mortality

We are surrounded by a constant drumbeat of natural and manmade tragedies that call for our attention as people of faith: earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, disease, oil spills, airplane crashes, wars and intractable prejudice.

The rapidly changing 24/7 news cycle inures us to the unrelenting and preventable tragedies of extreme poverty: homelessness, hunger, infant mortality and maternal mortality. Ten years ago, the leaders of 189 countries agreed to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals to eradicate poverty. Goal Five addresses the startling fact that every 90 seconds, somewhere in the world, a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth; more than a third of a million women die each year, most in the developing world. Too many people of faith, particularly those of us in the developed world, are unaware of the tragic and unending scale of maternal mortality -- or the fact that most of these deaths could be prevented by improved access to reproductive health services, including contraception and safe abortion, treatment for pregnancy and birth complications, and strategies to prevent or manage abortion-related complications.

This is not just a public health crisis but a moral one. Today, to bring attention to this global tragedy and to encourage U.S. support for increased commitments for reproductive health services internationally, the Religious Institute is releasing its first internationally focused theological framework, the new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice. The Open Letter is being released to coincide with the United Nation's High-Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals that begins next week in New York City.

The Open Letter recognizes that "access to sexual and reproductive health services is a matter of life and death." In order to prevent maternal and infant mortality, women around the world must have access to "contraception, STI/HIV prevention, ante-, pre-, and post-natal care; emergency obstetric care; newborn care; and safe abortion and post-abortion care. Hospitals and health services, regardless of religious affiliation, must provide or refer clients to this full range of reproductive health services."

The new Open Letter is grounded in diverse religious traditions affirmation that "humanity is created in the divine image and that life is sacred." As the letter continues, "the sacredness of life is best upheld when women and men create life intentionally, and women are able to have healthy pregnancies and childbirths." Surely, people of faith from diverse perspectives can agree to work to create a world where no woman loses her life to create a new one.

The Open Letter calls on all religious leaders to:
  • Educate themselves and their faith communities about the crisis of maternal mortality.
  • Publicly advocate for increased support for maternal health and reproductive health services, domestically and globally.
  • Work within their traditions to make the reduction of preventable maternal mortality a social justice issue.

We are calling on religious leaders to become involved. If you are a religious leader, please become one of the endorsers of the new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice. Become involved with the Religious Institute's Rachel Sabbath Initiative. As a person of faith, join the U.N. Millennium Campaign.

The Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice was developed at a colloquium sponsored by the Religious Institute and funded by the United Nations Foundation. Participants represented a diverse range of religious perspectives, including Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Unitarian Universalist, from the United States, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The Open Letter ends:

We are called to bear witness to the harsh reality that without comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, women and girls around the world suffer illness, violence and death. Our mission as faith communities compels us to work together to assure that all may flourish. We renew our call to sexual and reproductive justice. We make a solemn commitment to help create a just and equitable world where no woman will die giving birth to the next generation.

May it be so.