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High-Level Meeting Declares Family Planning Critical to Overcoming Maternal Mortality

“Ending the needless death and suffering of women during pregnancy is one of the greatest moral, human rights and development challenges of our time,” affirmed the more than 150 delegates that attended the High-Level Meeting on Maternal Health on October 26 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.[i] Delegates declared that universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) was critical to overcoming the challenge.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)organized the one-day event hosted by the Government of Ethiopia. The High-Level Meeting on Maternal Health, Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG5), the UNFPA announced, “was held to push maternal health higher on the political agenda and increase political and financial commitment for improving maternal health at the country level.”[ii] Attendees included “ministers, parliamentarians, and representatives of regional intergovernmental organizations, youth groups, private sector and civil society from around the world.”[iii]
In his opening remarks, the Dutch Minister, Mr. Koenders, noted that there are countries devoting serious efforts toward achieving MDG5, and that some have seen maternal mortality rates decline. However, in too many countries, there is no progress being made to address the 536,000 women who die each year from pregnancy-related complications, nearly all of them in developing countries.[iv] The Minister attributed the more than half a million yearly deaths directly to the lack of access to family planning.
Mr. Koenders explained, “research has shown that more than 200 million women worldwide would have chosen not to get pregnant, or to get pregnant later in life, had contraceptives been available. 200 million women say they want to use contraceptives, but have no access to them.”[v]
Further, delegates affirmed that the lack of protection for SRHR is a violation of universal human rights, with broader implications for the attainment of the other Millennium Development Goals. With trends of rapid population growth, Minister Koedners explained, “it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to provide enough food, water, schools, houses and jobs for a rapidly growing, young population.”[vi] Currently, about one half of the world population is below the age of 25, “and that proportion is growing,” a trend that has the potential to destabilize nations and the environment.[vii]
The Dutch Minister acknowledged that “sexual and reproductive health and rights touch on subjects considered sensitive, and they are, and they are considered private, and they are, or even taboo in many countries and cultures. After all, they relate to very personal decisions on family planning, relationships and sexuality. But these sensitive issues have to be raised, if we are all to move closer to achieving MDG5.”[viii]
Concrete steps of action to achieve MDG5 as well as goals outlined at the International Conference on Population and Development by 2015 were formulated at the High-Level Meeting. These specific recommendations were adopted into the Addis Call to Urgent Action for Maternal Health, and are addressed to governments, donors, civil society, young people and the private sector. The key measures put forth in the Call are to:
  1. Prioritize family planning, one of the most cost-effective development investments. If we can ensure access to modern contraceptives, we can prevent up to 40% of maternal deaths.
  2. Make adolescents a priority.
  3. Strengthen health systems with sexual and reproductive health as a priority.[ix]
Other specific recommendations, summarized in the UNFPA press release for the event include:
A call for policy makers to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, with the involvement of young people, and to break the silence and mobilize efforts to promote gender equality. They also called on development partners and donors to fulfill the agreed target of 0.7 per cent of gross national product for official development assistance, and to place maternal health and MDG5 at the centre of global health initiatives.[x]
Delegates at the meeting emphasized that improving maternal health is important not only for women, but also their children and partners. Minister Koedner described, “MDG5 is the mother of all MDGs—an investment in it promotes the attainment of all other MDGs.”[xi]
The Dutch Minister presented findings from the meeting at the Fourth International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action, which took place at the same conference center the two days following, October 27–28.


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[i] United Nations Population Fund, “Family Planning Key to Improving Maternal Health, Affirm World Delegates at High-Level Meeting,” Press Release published 27 October 2009, accessed 5 November 2009 <


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v]Bert Koenders, “High Level Meeting on Maternal Health Millennium Development Goal 5,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, (26 October 2009), accessed 4 November 2009, <>. 

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] “Addis Call to Urgent Action for Maternal Health,” (presented at the High-Level Meeting on Maternal Health, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 26 October 2009), <>.

[x] United Nations.

[xi] Ibid.