As Christmas decorations and celebrations surround us, we often take for granted the story of the birth of Jesus that created the reason for this holiday. I have found that as we remember all the other strange and miraculous stories about that time, it is quite easy to forget that it is no less than a miracle that Mary, his mother, survived.
Childbirth in ancient times was dangerous in any case. Mary gave birth in a stable, which made infection likely, and if she was as young as we tend to think she was, this was even more dangerous for her. The odds were very much against Mary, and in those early days and months, the destiny of her newborn son was dependent on her survival.
While much of the Christmas story is hard for us to relate to because of its setting in antiquity, this is a part that tragically has not changed in 2,000 years. Complications from childbirth and pregnancy are the leading cause of death in girls under 15 in developing countries where the majority of the world’s population lives, according to the World Health Organization. In all likelihood, the birth of God among us would be nearly as life-threatening to Mary now as it was then.
We cannot stop and think this is a problem “over there,” somewhere else. Our country is the only advanced economy where maternal mortality rates are rising. After having been reduced by 99 percent in the last century, the rate has now doubled again in the past few decades, according to the World Health Organization. In some states such as Mississippi, more women die in childbirth than in many developing countries, with rates especially high for African-American women. More women will continue to face life-threatening complications and death if we reduce access to basic pre- and post-natal healthcare and the contraceptives that would prevent pregnancies that are unplanned.
That is a tragedy, not just because it is a sad reality but because we have the resources to change that reality. In their bestseller “Half the Sky,” New York Times writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn explain that during World War I, more American women died in childbirth than American men died in the war. Yet maternal mortality plummeted in the next two decades as women won the right to vote and our society allocated basic resources to provide for maternal health. The same result has happened in developing countries when maternal health is seen as the human rights issue that it is.
The problem is this, like so many other concerns, is dismissed as “a women’s issue.” The journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology explains, “Maternal deaths in developing countries are often the ultimate tragic outcome of the cumulative denial of women’s human rights . . . . Women are not dying because of untreatable diseases. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”
That is the tragedy. Lives are worth saving. And that is not a women’s issue. Slavery was not and racism is not a Black issue, the Holocaust was not a Jewish issue, and the oppression, discrimination, and apathy towards the women of our world will never be a women’s issue.
Perhaps this holiday season, one of the greatest gifts we could give is to change the odds for women by advocating for improved access to healthcare and supporting the organizations that provide that access so that women’s lives are not left to a miracle.