Childbearing and health on Mother’s Day

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(Host) Like many of us, commentator Nils Dauliare observes Mother’s Day with a visit to the local cemetery.

(Daulaire) Every Mother’s Day, I walk down through our pasture to the little graveyard where the pioneers of our Royalton Hill farm are buried. Their weathered headstones tell a story of the hardships of Vermont life in the early 1800s – especially the stones of the two Betseys.

The first Betsey, beloved wife of Philip Howard, was barely twenty years old when she died. Buried with her is her unnamed infant son, who died the same day.

We can guess what happened. This woman, who worked as hard as her husband homesteading the Vermont wilderness, carried double duty. We don’t know whether this was her first pregnancy, but we do know that, in those days, large families were commonplace. And today, we know that early, closely-spaced pregnancies enormously increase a woman’s risk.

Betsey probably never missed a day of chores until she went into labor. She then retired to the old house’s tiny borning room – helped perhaps by a neighbor woman.

Maybe the baby was big. Maybe Betsey was undernourished, exhausted. The baby didn’t come. She wore herself out in desperate labor, and began to bleed. Whether her infant son was stillborn or delivered with tenuous breath, Betsey didn’t survive, and the motherless newborn had no chance.

The second Betsey was Philip’s second wife. She died a dozen years after the first, also still in her 20s. We don’t know why she died – but the stones around her tell us she had already been a mother several times over.

Our little cemetery reminds me that not so very long ago, life in our lovely hills could be cruel and short. And it reminds me of all the mothers struggling in the world’s poor countries, who face today what our ancestors faced in the 19th century. This year, over half a million of them will die the same way our Betseys died, trying to bring new life into the world and to raise healthy families. In many countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, a girl entering her adolescence has one chance in twelve of dying as a result of pregnancy before she makes it through her childbearing years.

Today, those deaths are far from inevitable. Modern family planning means that these women should be able to make their own choices about when and where to have their children. Worldwide, nearly a third of all pregnancies would be avoided if women could just follow their own wishes. We can reduce the risks of pregnancy with basic care that would see the vast majority of the world’s women safely through the most dangerous passage of their lives. All it would take is a decision that it matters.

On Mother’s Day, we offer sentimental thanks for the gift of life. But don’t we owe mothers more than gratitude? What about the best available care? What about respecting their right to control their own lives?

This Sunday, as on every other Mother’s Day, I’ll place a spring blossom on the graves of the two Betseys, and I’ll remember the debt we still owe to all the world’s mothers.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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