UN Leadership in Disarray as New Research Shatters Consensus on Maternal Health

UN Leadership in Disarray as New Research Shatters Consensus on Maternal Health


By Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D.

NEW YORK, June 9, 2010 (C-FAM) - Deep divisions with top United Nations (UN) officials and abortion activists on one side and maternal health researchers on the other became public this week during the Women Deliver 2 conference in Washington, DC. The dispute threatens to derail hopes of raising $30B for family planning at international development conferences in the coming months. These include the Group of Eight summit this month and the UN High Level Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Review in September.

The medical journal The Lancet published a study in April refuting UN research claiming that the 500,000+ annual maternal death statistic has remained unchanged for decades. The new study put the figure at 342,900 with 60,000 of those from HIV/AIDS, and said the number has been declining since 1980.

World Health Organization (WHO) executive director Margaret Chan told journalist Christiane Amanpour that legal abortion was a key factor in reducing maternal deaths, but the Lancet study she referred to never mentioned abortion. Thoraya Obaid, director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said the UN's own report on maternal health would be published in September and show similar trends. But WHO's top statistician Ties Boerma said the UN report would likely not be published until 2011, and when pressed stated cryptically that one could expect it to have similar findings if it were to use the same data.

Such collaboration seemed unlikely due to a sharp disagreement between UN staff who want only one set of UN-centered "consensus" statistics, and other scientists, such as the new study's author Christopher Murray and Lancet's editor Richard Horton, who called for more scholarly independence.

Scientists flatly refused to back up the 20 year-old claim by UN agencies and activists that family planning improves maternal health. The Guttmacher Institute's president, Sharon Camp, asked Murray whether his study's finding linking declining global fertility rates to better maternal health supports the idea that more family planning will reduce maternal deaths. Murray replied that "there is no scientific way to prove that."

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