The Common Good

Maternal Mortality, Birth Control, and What God Desires

Crib image by photomak / Shutterstock.
Crib image by photomak / Shutterstock.

I find myself thinking a lot about maternal mortality (and the issues that surround it, like access to contraception) lately, partly because I’ll soon be moving to a country with one of the world’s most dismal maternal mortality rates, and partly because my husband and I aren’t planning to have more biological children, which means that we’re contracepting for the duration.

Also, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky movement is gaining even more visibility — PBS’s Independent Lens is creating a series of short films and some longer features on issues raised in their bestselling, well-worth-reading book even as birth control reemerges again and again as a point of contention between Catholic bishops and nuns, between government policy and religious conviction, and even, as Amy Frykholm as suggested, among evangelicals.

Recently I’ve become aware that unwanted pregnancies are nothing new — certainly not the product of a culture that’s “anti-life” or anti-children, as the new-ish evangelical suspicion of birth control has it. In the 1850s, Mathilde Shillock, a German immigrant settled on the Minnesota frontier wrote,

“God has entrusted us with a son...it seems that his father is happy over it, I myself do not wish for any more children, as I look upon life as a heavy burden. [...] pity is all I can offer [this child]. Pity and a feeling of duty towards him to lighten his blameless fate.”

It’s not like she needed a better theology of parenting. She was just an already-overworked pioneer woman who already had lots of kids. Fertility, in some cases, can be a burden, even in a culture that celebrates children as gifts from God.

Not long ago, a Christian woman experienced in grassroots mission work in east Africa told me that one of the saddest things she encountered was the attitude of resignation on the part of people living in extreme poverty. She said something along these lines:

“When a baby dies, say, it’s accepted as the will of God. Not that they do not grieve — of course they do. It’s just that they don’t question it, whereas we, as Westerners, see the outrage of children dying of preventable diseases as just that — outrage. But they are so used to it.”

Indeed, the frequency of infant or maternal deaths in parts of the world can foster a sense of inevitability. In the country where my family and I are headed, Malawi, a woman’s lifetime chance of dying in childbirth is 1 in 36, around where it was in the US when Mathilda Shillock wrote to her sister of her desire to stop having babies.

Puritan minister Cotton Mather (who himself saw eight of his 15 children die before reaching the age of two) advised pregnant women that “preparation for death is that most Reasonable and Seasonable thing, to which you must now apply yourself.” Writings from women in this period indicate that death was uppermost in their minds as they prepared to give birth.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that in many societies — not least, in Christian societies, who may have frequently understood suffering in childbirth as what women ‘deserve’ post-Fall (even opposing pain relief) — “mythological or theological explanations [explained] why women should suffer in childbirth, [forestalling] efforts to make the process safer.”# Suffering and death was, as they understood it, the will of God.

And so I can’t help feeling that while some of the concerns about the effects of a “birth control culture” may be valid, I also worry that to deny women access to contraception — especially when we’re talking about women in the developing world — -is to trivialize what more children means in a place like Malawi, or, say, Somaliland, where women have a 1 in 14 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.

Romanticizing about “accepting as many children as God gives us” is a luxury that most women in the world can’t afford; that they pay for, literally, with their lives.

While there’s a place for acceptance and affirmation that God is good even when circumstances are evil, I can’t help but feel certain that what God desires for women everywhere is mercy, not their lives, and their childrens’, as sacrifice.

Maternal mortality (and morbidity) isn’t something to accept as “God’s will.” Rather it’s God’s will that we fight it — and all the attitudes about women that lead to it — with all the strength God gives.

Rachel Stone is a writer living in Greenport, N.Y. She has contributed to Relevant, Books and Culture, Christianity Today, and Flourish, and blogs at RachelMarieStone.com. Her book, Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, is forthcoming from IVP in February.

Crib image by photomak/shutterstock.

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