When my wife Michelle gave birth to our first child, Aidan, last year, I learned some things about the world. I learned that nature doesn’t take prisoners. That labour wards are only pragmatic places, designed to extract one human being from another. And that every news headline, every day, should read ”Woman gives birth to child”.
A hundred years ago, Michelle would not have survived Aidan’s birth. She had a post-partum haemorrhage (PPH), the condition that still kills more new mothers than anything else.
The simplest drug treatment for PPH is Misoprostol. But in many hospitals, especially in the developing world, nurses and midwives aren’t allowed to give Misoprostol (apparently because it can also be used to induce abortion). Only doctors are allowed to prescribe it, even though there are often no doctors around to do so. And many, many women die as a result. It is the most terrifying evidence of our world’s callous misogyny.
In our case, in an expensive private hospital, Michelle got the drugs she needed.
Even before the haemorrhage, though, there were moments when I was more scared than I thought possible. After nearly 18 hours of active labour, it was touch and go whether Aidan would need vacuum extraction or a Caesar, and, for what felt like hours, we lost track of his heart rate as he seemed to lodge in Michelle’s pelvis.
For many newborns, complications can be deadly. In an eye-opening TEDx talk from 2010, Francois Bonnici explains that one newborn baby dies every eight seconds. That’s 10 000 babies a day.
Measure it this way, he suggests: HIV claims 2 million lives a year. Malaria, 800 000. Newborn deaths: 3.6 million. (And that’s not including 3.2 million stillbirths — deaths in the latter half of pregnancy.)
There are more newborn deaths than HIV and malaria deaths put together. And 80% of those newborn deaths have just three, well-understood causes: asphyxia, infection and prematurity. Attended by skilled, confident nurses and with only basic equipment, deaths from those three causes can be prevented in the vast majority of cases.
In a top-notch private hospital, after months of great antenatal care, these issues were never a worry for Michelle and me. Aidan eventually arrived without intervention, all 4.19 kilograms of him.
But if well-understood problems are killing more little people than HIV and malaria combined, and if women die every day from treatable conditions, then they should worry us all, a great deal, every day.
I’ll say it again. Crikey, what an achievement: woman gives birth to child.