Commentary by Elizabeth Walsh

WASHINGTON, DC, July 6, 2009 (C-FAM) -  In its recently released annual report on the state of global health, the World Health Organization (WHO) presents statistics that misleadingly appear to place maternal mortality on par with other global killers like malaria and HIV/ AIDS. This new approach contradicts other WHO reports where maternal mortality does not even make the top ten of global killers, ranking somewhere lower than car accident fatalities.

The confusion first arises in the second table of the new report, which provides data about mortality due to maternal causes, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and injuries. All of these causes of death, except maternal mortality, are among the top ten causes of death globally; yet maternal mortality is shown in the same statistics table, as if it were comparable to the others.

Even more confusing to the casual reader is that the statistics in the table for maternal mortality actually appear to be a greater cause of death than the others. The table shows that maternal mortality has a “mortality rate” of 400 while coronary heart disease, considered the number one killer in the world, has a mortality rate of 301. While the WHO itself says maternal mortality kills 536,000 per year and coronary heart disease kills 7.2 million, this seeming parity is achieved by showing maternal mortality numbers as a function of total live births while the others are shown as a function of total population – a mixing of apples and oranges.

Critics charge that the report is part of the ongoing campaign by United Nations (UN) agencies and the WHO of exaggerating the actual incidence of maternal mortality for the purposes of promoting abortion.

A 2005 WHO Bulletin admitted that relatively very few countries provide reliable and complete data on mortality or cause of death. In fact, of the 46 African countries, which supposedly account for about 50% of maternal deaths, only one country had complete data available. Even so, WHO routinely asserts that about half a million women die every year from “maternal causes” in developing nations, regardless of the fact that the data available from developing nations on this subject is unreliable, with “high uncertainty margins.” The UN Population Division, the official UN statistics office, refuses to use the 500,000 number precisely because it is not verifiable.

The United Nations and its agencies consistently propose abortion and contraception, under the euphemism of “family planning,” as the best way to solve the overstated problem of maternal mortality. The 1999 joint statement issued by the World Bank, UNFPA, UNICEF, and WHO reiterated the importance of reducing maternal mortality through “three key areas for action:” “empowering women to make choices in their reproductive lives,” improvement of “access to and quality of maternal health services,” and “ensured access to voluntary family planning information and services.”

The UN-sponsored “Women Deliver” conference in 2007 also advocated what Dr. Susan Yoshihara has termed the “abortion first” mentality to improving maternal health. This downplays proven methods of reducing maternal mortality associated child bearing, namely increasing access to skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetric care.