Celebrate: Save a Mother
Happy Mother’s Day! And let me be clear: I’m in favor of flowers, lavish brunches, and every other token of gratitude for mothers and other goddesses.
Let me also add that your mom — yes, I’m speaking to you — is particularly deserving. (As is mine, as is my wife. And my mother-in-law!)
And because so many people feel that way, some $14 billion will be spent in the United States for Mother’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $2.9 billion in meals, $2.5 billion in jewelry and $1.9 billion in flowers.
To put that sum in context, it’s enough to pay for a primary school education for all 60 million girls around the world who aren’t attending school. That would pretty much end female illiteracy.
These numbers are fuzzy and uncertain, but it appears that there would be enough money left over for programs to reduce deaths in childbirth by about three-quarters, saving perhaps 260,000 women’s lives a year.
There would probably even be enough remaining to treat tens of thousands of young women suffering from one of the most terrible things that can happen to a person, a childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula. Fistulas leave women incontinent and dribbling wastes, turning them into pariahs — and the injuries are usually fixable with a $450 operation.
So let’s celebrate Mother’s Day with all the flowers and brunches we can muster: no reason to feel guilty about a dollop of hedonism to compensate for 365 days of maternal toil. But let’s also think about moving the apostrophe so that it becomes not just Mother’s Day, honoring a single mother, but Mothers’ Day — an occasion to try to help other mothers around the globe as well.
Oddly, for a culture that celebrates motherhood, we’ve never been particularly interested in maternal health. The United States ranks 41st in the world in maternal mortality, according to an Amnesty International report, or 37th according to a major new study in the medical journal The Lancet, using different data sources.
Using either set of statistics, an American woman is at least twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as a woman in much of Europe.
A friend of mine in New York, a young woman who minds her health and has even worked on maternal health issues, nearly joined the data set last month. She had an ectopic pregnancy that she was unaware of until her fallopian tube ruptured and she almost died.
Maternal mortality is far more common in Africa and Asia. In the West African country of Niger, a woman has about a one-in-seven lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy complications. Women there often aren’t supposed to go to a doctor if the husband hasn’t granted express permission — so if he’s 100 miles away when she has labor complications, she may just die at home.
On the 50th anniversary of the pill, it’s also worth noting that birth control is an excellent way to reduce deaths in childbirth. If there were half as many pregnancies in poor countries, there would be half as many maternal deaths.
It’s certainly not inevitable that women die in childbirth, and some poor countries — like Sri Lanka — have done a remarkable job curbing maternal mortality. But in many places, women’s lives are not a priority.
There’s no silver bullet to end maternal mortality, but we know steps that have made a big difference in some countries. Bipartisan legislation to be introduced this year by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut aims to have the United States build on these proven methods to tackle obstetric fistulas and maternal health globally.
Just the money that Americans will spend on Mother’s Day greeting cards for today — about $670 million — would save the lives of many thousands of women. Many organizations do wonderful work in this area, from the giants like CARE and Save the Children to the tiny Edna Maternity Hospital in Somaliland. Women Deliver and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood do important advocacy work. And the Fistula Foundation and Worldwide Fistula Fund help women who have obstetric fistulas. (Details are on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground.)
So if one way to mark Mothers’ Day is to buy flowers for that special mom, another is to make this a safer planet for moms in general. And since we men are going to be focused on the flowers, maybe mothers themselves can work on making motherhood less lethal.
I had a letter the other day from a woman in Connecticut, Eva Hausman, who was so appalled when she learned about obstetric fistulas that she e-mailed her friends and asked them to contribute at least $20. To date she has raised $9,000 for the Fistula Foundation.
“Most of the contributions were accompanied by thank-you notes,” she told me. When people thank you for allowing them to donate — that’s truly a heartwarming cause, and a beautiful way to celebrate Mothers’ Day.