UN Finally Accepts New and Much Lower Estimates of Global Maternal Deaths

By Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D.

(NEW YORK – C-FAM) UN leadership capitulated on key maternal health figures last week, conceding pregnancy-related deaths have fallen faster than recently reported.

A new report abandons statistics fiercely defended just months ago. In April, an independent research team showed that UN leaders had for years inflated the number of maternal deaths to a half-million worldwide.

The new UN report mirrors the independent study, putting the number around 350,000 and falling. The change highlights the tension between the UN’s dual roles in research and policy making, as one researcher told of jetting overnight to make statistics match policy.

The UN finds itself having to accept the lower maternal death figures just as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tries to rally $169 billion in new funding for maternal and child health.

“The independent report was an embarrassment for the World Health Organization,” said Dr. Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Harrison said WHO’s credibility had suffered when the small research team produced more accurate data.

When the medical journal Lancet published the independent findings, the editor told the New York Times that advocates pressured him not to publish it until after this week’s summit on UN development goals in New York.

UN researchers and women’s rights groups confronted the authors of the Lancet study at a meeting in Washington last June, asking them to get in line with UN statistics so as not to confuse the media and big donors.

UN leadership was in disarray over how to react. WHO head Margaret Chan misquoted the report as saying legal abortion reduced maternal deaths. In fact, the report never mentioned abortion or family planning and credited better economic development, education, better health care and lower birth rates as factors.

The head of the UN Population Fund and WHO’s top statistician had offered conflicting views about whether the UN report would reflect the lower numbers or stick to the 500,000 figure. Activists at the recent UN-backed Women Deliver conference rolled their eyes and actually laughed at the independent report’s findings and urged UN officials not to accept them.

While the major finding differs little between the two reports, the Lancet study hailed the one-third drop in maternal deaths as “substantive” progress, but the UN characterized it as “modest.” And the UN report recommends funding family planning and abortion, even though it acknowledges no evidentiary link to maternal health.

The UN report explicitly compares its methodology to the Lancet study, but it does not reveal research methods. One difference is that national governments weighed in on its initial findings before final analysis and publication.

“The [independent] study was very objective with how they obtained their data. WHO’s process was not completely transparent,” Duke University’s Dr. Monique Chireau said.

UN scientists say they have to balance publishing their findings with gaining support for UN policies. One researcher said he got an emergency call and flew all night from Geneva to an African capital. He changed that country’s maternal death statistics after hearing how the numbers would negatively affect hitting UN development targets.

The independent study authors suggested that UN peers quit making policy and focus on research, Dr. Chireau said.

This article first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute (http://www.c-fam.org/). This article appears with permission.”

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