Four countries, four mothers, four very different circumstances
TELEVISION: A documentary about maternal mortality shows that poverty is a huge factor in surviving childbirth
Most evenings for the past several days there has been someone on the airwaves smugly spouting that we’re one of the safest countries in the world to have a baby, as if that statistic is relevant to the abortion debate.
But as Four Born Every Second (BBC One, Monday), the extraordinarily good documentary by Brian Hill, showed in every vivid frame, maternal mortality is an indicator of poverty and little else. Each year 287,000 women around the world die giving birth, mostly in African countries. This powerful film kicked off a series of documentaries to be broadcast in 180 countries this month, each exploring why, in the 21st century, a billion people still live in poverty.
The very different experience of childbirth globally is a broad story to try to tell in an hour; by focusing on four births, in the US, UK, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, Hill got to the heart of the poverty-fuelled issues. The voiceover reminded us several times that birth is a lottery.
In Cambodia the geographical accident of her birth meant that Neang’s baby was more likely to suffer malnutrition than go to school. Baby Michael and his mother survived the birth in Sierra Leone – one in eight women don’t – and if he’s as lucky as he was starting out he might reach that country’s average lifespan of 49.
In the UK, where maternal mortality is low, baby Finlay might live to 100. Curiously, in the US, where newly homeless Starr delivered her baby in a high-tech environment, the maternal-mortality rate has increased significantly in the past 20 years, as the gap between rich and poor has widened.
This was an unapologetically campaigning film, wearing its plea for justice and equality on its sleeve. The stoicism and strength of the women were inspiring, as was the clinic in Sierra Leone run by Médecins Sans Frontières. Dr Phillip de Almeida, an obstetrician, and his team are proving that spending about €1 a day per patient can mean that high maternal death rates are not inevitable.
This is a diamond-rich country, said the doctor, but it’s about how we choose to distribute wealth. Viewers tuning in expecting a BBC version of Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall maternity series One Born Every Minute – in which a dad is invariably eating a takeaway in the corner and a mother is screaming the house down – will have done a serious double take. But my bet is they stayed watching: Four Born Every Second was compelling.