Thursday, August 7, 2008

Blessings of the Present

Rachel Weeping, by Charles Willson Peale

Above is a painting by Charles Willson Peale of his wife Rebecca weeping over her dead little one. This painting is a poignant reminder of one of the blessings of modern life: the drastic lowering of child and infant mortality. In 19th-century America, the mortality of children on the frontier under the age of five was 50 percent. This is significantly higher than the child mortality rate in Africa today, except in war-torn regions. Although Rachel Peale did not live on the frontier but in colonial Philadelphia, she lived in a time of high infant mortality. The older stones in graveyards tell the story; those with the lamb on top signify that a child lies there. In the 19th century, babies who were raised in ideal conditions, clean environment, regularly breast fed, and well cared for could expect death rates of 80 to 100 per thousand. The inner city rates were dramatically higher, infant mortality (not even child mortality) was on average 30 percent, mainly due to the poverty, dreadful housing situations, and unhealthy urban sanitary conditions (Recall the infant and child deaths in Angela's Ashes.)

Perhaps today, from our position of advantage, we might think that mothers who lose their children at such rates "are used to it." But Rachel Weeping tells the truth: The loss of a child anywhere and in any time rains down a shower of grief upon the mother--grief compounded by the feeling of utter helplessness in the face of incurable disease or starvation.

Likewise, the mortality of women from childbirth was high. According to Children of the West by Catherine Luchetti, maternity deaths were as high as 25 percent on the American frontier, and in the 19th century, men far outnumbered women on the frontier for this reason. Even as late as the 1930s, America was considered one of the most unsafe places in the world for pregnant women. In many other places in the world today, childbirth still causes many maternal deaths. According to Save the Mothers, in the 20th century, more women died worldwide from childbirth than soldiers killed in both world wars, and from 1980 to 2000, more women died from childbirth than died from AIDS.

Today, with the benefits of medicine, maternal mortality is so uncommon in the United States that the number-one cause of death of American pregnant women or of women who recently delivered babies, is homicide--usually at the hand of a man who knows the woman.

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