24 September 2009

Maternal mortality is not sexy enough for the media

Photo credit: Marco Vernaschi, Pulitzer Center

Sometimes being a feminist academic and living in a wealthy industrialised country can screw up your view of the world.

Seriously, hear me out.

I've spent the last few weeks, recovering from a hangover of media blitzing about homebirthing and thinking about where women's interests are really best served when it comes to birth in Australia. It's so easy for me to say (and trust me, I have been) that women should be encouraged to have alternative birthing plans outside of the hospital. At the same time, however, as I teach a university subject about a history of medicine (and I hate myself a little bit for saying this) medicine has done great things for women when it comes to birth.

Don't get me wrong. I've always harbored a healthy skepticism for biomedicine and particularly obstetrics/gynecology. But before I get inundated with a barrage of emails about how evil obstetricians are and what a bad feminist I am, I have to say that each day as I scan the daily news items looking for inspiration for the blank space in front of me, every single day I flick through stories about women dying in birth in the far reaches of the world. Sometimes I write about them and sometimes my mouse keeps moving because I have the luxury (and many of you do as well) to fast forward on from tragedy if I feel like it.

But not today.

Marco Vernaschi, an Italian photographer, started off photographing war but has since moved his focus to maternal health care, particularly in Guinea-Bissau, one of the world's most dangerous places in which to be pregnant. One in eight women die giving birth and babies often don't survive the first two days of their lives.

"Standing in the only operating room in the only medical hospital in all of Guinea-Bissau, Marco Vernaschi watched a nurse take an unsterile needle out of her pocket and, without anesthetic, suture a woman’s vagina after a difficult childbirth. The woman screamed. Mr. Vernaschi took a photograph. Moments later, she was required to walk out of the filthy room and go home."

Vernaschi is now trying to shed light on the absolutely heart wrenching stories of life and death, of both mothers and babies with his photos. As I looked through these images, of women waiting on a dirty floor to give birth, of seeing women on rusty gurneys, babies dead and waiting for burial, it makes me feel very lucky to have the opportunity to live in a country where, even though birthing options are not perfect, at least women have the hope for change.

Hospitals have never been the perfect solution to such a natural process, but living in Australia, we rarely worry about dying from unsterile needles or just from having to wait too long for medical care. Medicine still saves women from pain and death and suffering.

Look at these pictures and thank your lucky stars for your life.

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