Only eight years ago the United States ranked 6th on Save the Children’s list of best places to be a mother. Since then we’ve plunged to 31st place out of 178 countries, according to their new report.
“In the U.S., the lifetime risk of maternal death has risen more than 50 percent since we launched our first report in 2000 — from 1 in 3,700 to 1 in 2,400,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. “Today, an American woman faces the same lifetime risk of maternal death as a woman in Iran or Romania.” A woman in the U.S. is more than 10 times as likely as a woman in Estonia, Greece or Singapore to eventually die from a pregnancy-related cause.
Over the same period, the U.S. made few advances in saving young children’s lives, cutting the risk of death by 15%. Only 14 other countries made less progress.
Israel ranks 28, just three above the U.S.
The best and worst countries on the list are made up of the usual suspects. Scandinavian countries sit on top, while war-torn African ones dominate the bottom. The gap between the best and the worst is not insignificant. In Finland, which is #1, fewer than one in 12,000 women die from maternal causes, and the 0.3% children die before the age of 5 . In bottom-ranking Somalia, one in 16 women dies from maternal causes and 15% of children fail to reach his or her fifth birthday.
In case that doesn’t illustrate point, this will. Nearly every Somali mother is likely to lose a child under 5. Only 1 in 181 Finnish women are likely to lose a child.
When I read about these heartbreaking circumstances, at home and abroad, the dominant conversation surrounding childbirth in feminist communities in the U.S. started to feel rather trivial. I’m talking about the natural vs. epidural, bathtub vs. stirrups, placenta eaters vs. bottle-feeders debates that populate much of the mommy blogosphere. As with so many aspects of our lives today, there is a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots, and much of the reform taking place in the realm of childbirth and early childhood care, some necessary, some ridiculous, is increasingly only benefiting the haves. The notion of a birth plan is such a far off concept for over half the world.
I am not suggesting that all women, wealthy urban ones included, should not feel entitled to advocate on behalf of themselves and their babies, just that it is important to keep perspective on the “crisis” of a bottle-fed child when so many are dying from malnutrition. At least once-in-awhile we need to take note of our fortune, our abundance, and remember why tzedekah, or creating a more just world, is considered by some rabbinic sages as the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined. Those mothers are our responsibility too.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.