"Pregnancy and childbirth kill more than 536,000 women a year, more than half of them in Africa," writes Denise Grady from Tanzania in the May 24, 2009, New York Times. Her article, "Where Life's Start Is a Deadly Risk," contrasts the World Health Organization's (WHO) estimate of Tanzania's maternal mortality rate - 950 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births - with Ireland's: 1 per 100,000.

In other words, a Tanzanian woman has a 1 in 24 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth; an Irish woman's risk is 1 in 47,600. (U.S. statistics, which you can check at the WHO website: a mortality rate of 11 deaths per 100,000 births, with a 1 in 4,800 lifetime risk.)

"The women who die are usually young and healthy, and their deaths needless," Grady writes. "The five leading causes are bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, prolonged labor and botched abortions."

Most women give birth at home (50%) or in local clinics (30%), going to a hospital - sometimes by bicycle! - only when they have been in labor for days and realize they need a caesarean. Because hospitals are understaffed and overcrowded, the surgery may be performed by a physician's assistant, and the woman may end up sharing a twin bed with another woman. This is scary enough to read about, but the shock value is even higher in the series of 21 photos, "Childbirth in Tanzania," accompanying the article.

And yet "to persuade more women to give birth at the hospital instead of at home, [Berega] hospital is sending health workers with that message to marketplaces, churches, village elders and religious leaders." For women who live far away, they are creating a maternity waiting home and are trying to get government funds for an ambulance.

As I read this, I wondered if this is an ...

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