Giving birth to change

January 5, 2002

ST. THOMAS, CANADA – Among the more comical responses to the tragic attacks of Sept. 11 was from an American who said she would pile up her credit card charges to beat the terrorists, “Just to show I have faith in the economy.”

One has to wonder if there isn’t a better way. Consider this picture as it relates to a rarely reported global blight.

Let’s say today is Sept. 11 and your mother was aboard one of the airliners that went down. Let’s say your wife was on another and your sister on the third one. They have all died horribly. Would it matter? In truth, in the developing world this year, 600,000 pregnant women, enough to fill three jumbo jets every day of the year, will die during childbirth. Quietly.

While lifespans and other indicators of advances in the developing world improve, death rates in childbirth are actually rising. In the last century, this scourge killed more than tuberculosis, suicide, traffic accidents and AIDS combined and, incredibly, even more than the number of people killed in both world wars.

By the time it takes you to read this, another mother will have died, blood-splattered or convulsed, a victim of high blood pressure or infection. Perhaps she had a mangled womb with a child wedged inside. She likely left other children.

Thousands lucky enough to live will acquire a fistula, where a torn birth canal leaves them incontinent. Like lepers, they’ll be thrown out of their families and villages. It’s all hardly dinner conversation. And we’re removed from it. Just six in 100,000 Canadian women don’t survive childbirth now. Three generations ago, that rate was more than 10 times higher, which demonstrates even those of us in the world who are advantaged have had to learn.

It’s perplexing that the federal government has drastically chopped foreign aid in recent years. Even as it now contemplates increasing its contribution levels, it likely won’t reach the G-20 target of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product.

Still, more than money, we need to send qualified midwives and obstetricians to work in the developing world, just as we send peacekeepers.

For instance, Jean Chamberlain, a McMaster University obstetrician, is now pioneering maternal training in Yemen, where a staggering one in nine women dies during childbirth.

As it is, Chamberlain, a St. Thomas native, is a Canadian anomaly. She works among the poor because private supporters fund her work. How many more obstetricians would go abroad if their home-office needs would be maintained with programs and sponsorships?

Aid through universities is one consideration. And yet medical students from UWO are left to their own financial devices when pursuing field work in the developing world. A group from McMaster recently held its third annual Day of International Women’s Health to enlighten students on the plight of women in places such as Afghanistan. How much help did McMaster give organizers? Two per cent of the day’s costs.

Why doesn’t Canada, a country recognized for its humanitarian spirit, have a centre devoted to international women’s issues, similar to ones at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine or Johns Hopkins University? Support organizations and networks such as these are needed to assist other Canadian professionals who want to go abroad to offer their own non-medical skills. Then those with this vision of aid will have the tools enabling them to contribute.

Is there a link between this and global tensions that led to Sept. 11? Consider the terribly unequal distribution of wealth on this planet. Almost 90 per cent of Earth’s 6.1 billion humans live in the developing world, yet the rich minority offer less attention than what we give our pets and toys.

We live in creative times. We can put a robotic capsule on Mars, market 600 million Cokes around the planet every day and clone sheep. In a rich stupor, many of us also live more comfortably than history’s kings and queens. Now the world is getting smaller and we’re facing a paradigm shift. And we’re being awakened.

That’s the silver lining in the cloud of Sept. 11. Violence is evil, but so is indifference to suffering. Now a bloody tide has lapped onto our shore. We can shake our fists in fear and run to the mall. Or we can open our imaginations and help clean things up.

In the end, our response will bring light or darkness to our own future, as much as it will to those in impoverished parts of world. And that is sobering.

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January 5, 2002 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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