A common question that comes up when discussing procreation is: "What if the life of the mother is in danger?"
My typical first response to this question is: "The mother's life is always in danger with every pregnancy." Many people in today's world don't really even think of childbirth as being dangerous. Relative to year's past, it isn't. But, just for the sake of perspective, let's consider the actual statistics.
First, let me introduce a technical term: "Maternal Mortality Ratio" (hereafter "MMR"). This is the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In the United States in the year 2000, the MMR was 17. To put that in terms some might find easier to understand, an MMR of 17/100,000 equates to an approximate 1 in 6000 risk of dying with each childbirth experience. The current MMR of 17 is just a bit higher than the risk of death in automobile accidents (15).
If you happen to be one of those who do not pay much attention to the risks of driving a car, consider that auto accidents represent the number one cause of death in children and young adults. Some people take all kinds of precautions for other risks that they don't realize are relatively negligible and then throw their kids in the car without proper safety restraints and drive down the road talking on their cell phones.
Back to the point of this post... Even with modern medical advances, each pregnancy still places a woman at a relatively high risk of death.
Now, let's put that in some historical perspective. Below is a chart showing the reduction in the MMR since 1890, when statistics were first reliably recorded (source: Irvine Loudon, Maternal mortality in the past and its relevance to developing countries today, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 72, No. 1, 241S-246s, July 2000 ).
As you can see, the risk of death from childbirth used to be 20-50 times higher than it is today (10 times higher just in our parent's lifetimes). Compare a previous normal 1 in 200 risk of dying with each pregnancy versus today's greatly improved 1 in 6000 risk. One can only speculate what it was like in previous eras. I wonder what the risks were 1000 or 5000 years ago.
So, the honest ethical questions I would like to ask in this post begin as follows:
How much higher than today's normal (15/100,000) would the risk need to be for a mother to decide it is "too dangerous" for her to consider getting pregnant? If you are 50 times more likely than average to die from childbirth because of a particular medical condition, your risk of death is probably pretty close to the average risk of death of a woman prior to 1935 in the United States, and probably much better than the average in Luther's day.
Does the fact that modern medicine has greatly improved one's chances of surviving pregnancy make the risks women used to take morally unacceptable for today? Should they have refrained from having children back then because of the high risk of pregnancy? Should we refrain now when the risks approach their levels because it isn't normal for today?
It sounds pretty harsh when looked at in these terms, but what do you think?
I give thanks for all the mothers throughout history who have risked their lives to give life. Thanks be to God for our mothers!