A Birth Pill

Every minute, a woman somewhere in the world dies in childbirth or from complications of pregnancy.

But there is an inexpensive medicine that could save a great many of these women’s lives — misoprostol.

Misoprostol is a generic drug originally developed to treat ulcers, but it’s predominately used off-label for obstetrics. When a mother takes it immediately after delivery, it can effectively stop the leading cause of maternal death in most developing countries: postpartum hemorrhage or excessive bleeding. What’s more, it’s an easy-to-take tablet with a long shelf life, so it’s suitable for the vast majority of women who deliver at home, in remote villages, far from skilled medical care.

Misoprostol can be manufactured for as little as 4 cents a tablet, and in developing countries, a three-tablet dose goes for about a dollar.

Because of its use in abortion, the drug’s availability is limited. However, the abortion debate should not obscure the benefits of its use in safe childbirth. The United Nations has called for a drastic reduction in maternal mortality by 2015. To this end, my organization has had success working with agencies and governments to increase access to misoprostol to prevent unnecessary maternal deaths from postpartum hemorrhage, but there’s more work ahead.

When they are about to deliver, Tanzanian mothers often say to their older children, “I’m going to go and fetch the new baby; it is a dangerous journey and I may not return.” I’m eight months pregnant, and dying in childbirth is not something I fear. No mother should.

Amy Grossman, the communications manager at Venture Strategies for Health and Development, a nonprofit organization.