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A new study released online today reveals some surprising news: maternal mortality rates have dropped worldwide!

The study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found that the number of women dying from childbirth or pregnancy dropped from about 526,300 in 1980 to 342,900 in 2008. This is welcomed news after decades of reports showing little to no improvement in maternal mortality rates.

This new report is believed to be more accurate than studies released in the past. Researchers analyzed pregnancy and childbirth related deaths in 181 countries from 1980 to 2008, gathering around three times more information than previous research. According to Dr. Horton, editor of The Lancet, the new study used both better data and better statistical methods.

Not everyone is thrilled with the news, though. According to the New York Times, various women’s health organizations attempted to pressure The Lancet into delaying publication of the report, fearing it would negatively impact their cause.

“Dr. Horton said the advocates, whom he declined to name, wanted the new information held and released only after certain meetings about maternal and child health had already taken place.

He said the meetings included one at the United Nations this week, and another to be held in Washington in June, where advocates hope to win support for more foreign aid for maternal health from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other meetings of concern to the advocates are the Pacific Health Summit in June, and the United Nations General Assembly meeting in December.”

Given the importance of maternal mortality to the international advancement of reproductive health services (i.e. abortion), concern on the part of some organizations is understandable. The tragic number of deaths worldwide due to pregnancy and childbirth has been an incredibly powerful advocacy tool in securing funding for reproductive health services worldwide. Noted improvement in maternal mortality might make that funding more difficult to secure, or at least inspire more scrutiny of what is and is not working and why.

The study does suggest some interesting answers to these questions. The study reports numerous causes for the improvement, such as decreases in fertility, higher incomes, better education for women, and higher numbers of skilled birth attendants.

Most interesting, however, is the connection between AIDS and maternal mortality. According to the study about 60,000 pregnant women died from HIV/AIDS in 2008. If these deaths are removed form the final calculation, there were 281,500 maternal deaths in 2008, rather than 342,900. That is a fairly big difference.

This suggests to us that the key to reducing maternal mortality rates is not reducing the number of pregnancies, but more importantly, improving health education and health care services.

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