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Half the Sky: Maternal Mortality and Family Planning

In Chapters 7 and 8 of Half the Sky, authors WuDunn and Kristof discuss very challenging, and even contentious, subject matter: maternal mortality and family planning. While it seems that many would agree that no one wants mothers to die during childbirth, views on family planning can be disparate—particularly in an American context. Staggering statistics, as well as overwhelming anecdotal evidence, also reveal that protecting maternal health is significantly overlooked and/or under funded.

Throughout the world, women find themselves without the resources to address their maternal needs, both through prenatal and birthing care and contraception. In chapter 7, we read the tragic story of Prudence Lemokouno, who suffered an agonizing death because she was not given the appropriate care to address her difficult delivery. It is argued that this happened, and continues to happen worldwide because of four factors: biology, lack of schooling, lack of rural health systems and a disregard for women. Poverty may also be a factor in many cases, however the country of Sri Lanka is noted as a contradiction to this. It is proof that even “poor” countries can protect mothers.

Ultimately, the authors contend that the best argument to address maternal mortality is not an economic one, claiming that it will be “cheaper” or “cost-effective” to do so. Instead, it is best to support the need for the expense on ethical grounds, making it a human rights issue. Life-saving health care that you and I might easily get in the United States is simply unavailable women the world over. This reality means that women (and babies) lose their lives at an alarming rate that is both staggering and astonishing. Our duty to them is thus all the more pressing and vital to the well being of humanity worldwide.

In chapter 8, the authors deal with the controversial issue of family planning, specifically with birth control use and distribution as well as abortion. The connection(s) between American politics and aid distribution is artfully presented in a measured and informative way, with the missteps of both liberals and conservatives outlined and their impact upon the lives and mortality of women clearly presented. In the end, the authors hold that those on both sides of this contentious issue need to be more flexible and realistic about what works and what doesn’t for the best health of the women and men we are proposing to help. For instance, an extensive analysis of the “abstinence only” programs being promoted in Africa during the George W. Bush administration helps to reveal how a morally-driven agenda was not helpful in actually protecting men and women from the transmission of AIDS. Research showed that women who are married are actually more at risk for contracting the HIV virus, precisely what the distribution of contraception was intended to prevent. While the bent of this program remains correspondent with many strict Christian views on sexuality, it is blind to the reality that those women most at risk are unable to access the resource they need to protect themselves For many of us, issues of family planning feels heavily weighted with a moral responsibility to adhere to our own principles. The complexity of the intersection of sexuality and public health is astonishing and is compounded by our own religious beliefs and ethical paradigms.

We may feel concerned about attitudes that are being promoted or realities being created by ready access and resources. Still, Kristof and WuDunn provide us with a priceless opportunity to reflect and consider how we may express and embody our own worldview, while being connected to how it needs to be appropriately translated into contexts differing from our own.

This was originally posted on the Women’s Resource Center website as part of the book club discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Join the discussion at the Women’s Resource Center blog.

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