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Backsliding on Maternal Mortality

The number of women dying in pregnancy, childbirth, or its aftermath has stopped falling globally and has increased in some regions, even though the vast majority of deaths are preventable with simple interventions. To end such needless suffering, governments must invest in proven, cost-effective solutions.

NEW YORK – In 2020, an estimated 287,000 women died in pregnancy, childbirth, or soon after delivering, according to the latest data from the United Nations Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group, which includes the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), where I am executive director. This figure is roughly equivalent to the death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, two of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history.

Human devastation on this scale is usually met with weeks of news coverage, an outpouring of public support, and calls for urgent action. Yet the staggering number of women dying every year in the act of giving life remains largely a silent crisis. Even more worrying, the group found that progress on reducing maternal deaths has ground to a halt.

How many of us know someone who died, or came close to dying, during pregnancy or childbirth? Perhaps the pervasiveness of suffering is part of the problem – maternal deaths may seem inevitable. Yet the vast majority are preventable with simple interventions that save money in the long run.