This World Health Day, Shine a Light on Maternal Health

Pregnant women at a maternity waiting house in northern Sierra Leone, where they can stay fom the ninth month of pregnancy until their babies are delivered.

Today is World Health Day – and you can celebrate by shining a light on maternal health!

World Health Day marks the anniversary of the founding, in 1948, of the World Health Organization, whose constitution – signed by all 193 Members of the United Nations — states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

Preventable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth are violations of the right to health, and the right to freedom from discrimination due to gender, race, ethnicity, immigration status, or income level. Maternal mortality is not just a public health emergency – it is a human rights crisis.

Every 90 seconds, another woman dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth – that’s 1,000 women every day, more than 350,000 each year. The vast majority of these deaths could be prevented, and ninety-nine percent happen in the developing world — the greatest disparity between developed and developing countries of any global health issue.

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Happy World Health Day!

Today is the 60th World Health Day, which the World Health Organization uses to highlight a different health theme each year. Today it’s making hospitals safe in emergencies, which WHO Director-General Margaret Chan promoted at an event in China, nearly a year after the Chengdu earthquake. The WHO’s activities to mark the anniversary of the disaster seem to have been warmly received, unlike those of environmental activist Tan Zuoren, who last week was detained by the police in Chengdu, apparently because he planned to publish a list of children who died and a report on the role corruption played in the schools that collapsed. He’s currently at risk of torture.

Here in the United States, particular hospitals are vulnerable to disasters like Hurricane Ike — and our health care system as a whole is facing a slow-motion emergency. The figure you often hear of one in six people in the United States lacking health insurance is just the tip of the iceberg — one in three non-elderly Americans was uninsured at some point in the last two years (as Families USA recently reported).

Our health outcomes are a cause for shame: on women’s lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, the United States ranks 41st in the world, and black women have three times the maternal mortality rate of white women (as AIUSA is currently investigating).  

Will health care reform fix these problems? That’s up in the air right now. But the starting points for that process are cause for despair: What can get past a filibuster? What will entrenched interests sign off on?

Human rights give us a fundamentally different place to begin. As the WHO’s constitution says,

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

A health care debate that takes human rights seriously starts where the WHO’s constitution does: every human being has the human right to health care. That’s exactly where AIUSA’s new statement of health care principles begins: for a health care system to fulfill the human right to health care, it must be universal — as well as equitable and accountable.

Do you agree that health care is a human right? Then celebrate World Health Day by adding your name to AIUSA’s petition. Join us in bringing human rights to the health care debate!

AIUSA has joined with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the National Health Law Program, and the Opportunity Agenda to form the Health Care is a Human Right Coalition. Don’t miss NESRI and NHeLP’s ten human rights principles for financing health care (long version, short version, press release), and OA’s State of Opportunity in America, 2009, which assesses the current state of health care as well as income, education, poverty and incarceration.