More than 500,000 women - around one a minute, 99 per cent in the developing world - died last year in childbirth. The act of giving life should not be a fatal proposition. By taking up this vital yet long-neglected and unglamorous cause through the G8 presidency, Stephen Harper and Canada could rally the richest countries' resources to help turn back a needless and preventable tragedy. Curbing maternal mortality is urgently needed, and absolutely attainable.
World attention on the problem is long overdue. In many poor countries, the maternal mortality rate has barely budged in 20 years, despite the progress in slowing the growth of deadly conditions with far more virulent origins, such as malaria and AIDS. In Niger, the chances that a 15-year-old girl will die from a complication related to pregnancy and childbirth during her lifetime are a staggering one in seven. In sub-Saharan Africa, every 100th childbirth ends with the death of the mother.
What's more, for every death, 20 women face serious or long-lasting consequences. A renewed focus on maternal health will save thousands of lives, and, because a mother's health is integral to the health, security and stability of her entire family, will confer many more benefits.
The cause can be won, because many solutions are close at hand. Most maternal deaths take place during the last trimester, or soon after birth, due to severe bleeding and infection. When trained midwives and other health professionals are available to assist, and when simple blood transfusion and infection control techniques are practised, the mortality rate goes down.
In other words, giving the right resources to a mother immediately before, during and after birth means a healthier pregnancy. It's something every Canadian mother knows, but most Canadians are lucky enough to have these services. By supporting midwife training and clinics that can provide basic delivery and postdelivery services - an approach the British medical journal The Lancet calls "the best bet" - a Canada-led G8 initiative could help cut the number of maternal deaths.
The G8 will also need to tackle other, more systemic causes of maternal mortality. Amnesty International, which has launched a new campaign on the subject, points to the need for women to have more control. By gaining more access for women to family planning services, reducing underage marriages (which often lead to risky underage pregnancies) and involving women more in the management of their own health care, the underlying causes of dangerous pregnancies can be curtailed.
Many development schemes have been most effective when they are targeted at a discrete problem with a known solution. In the campaign to ban land mines and the fight against polio, Canadian leadership was critical. Bringing such leadership to bear on behalf of the world's mothers, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged, is a cause that will repay itself far beyond the dollars we spend.