India’s maternal mortality rates are appalling – especially considering the size of the population. 450 mothers will die for every 100,000 live births. The lifetime risk of maternal mortality in India is 1 in 70. The net result is that over 100,000 women die due to maternal health risks each year 1. But every country must begin somewhere and India is beginning to make the legal case that mothers should be a protected group and that hospitals and doctors can be sued for not providing adequate care for mothers in need.
A ground breaking maternal mortality case was settle in court in April 2010. The end result is that the Delhi High Court found it unconstitutional to deny care to mothers and that doctors who deny care can be held financially liable for the death or disability of a mother 2.
The case was decided after two mothers died because the hospital/doctors would not treat them because of their caste and citizenship status. Two women were traveling when they needed medical assistance with their babies. When they went to the hospital they were not able to produce the exact documents required for treatment. While their dire health conditions were very evidence the hospital denied access to services. One of the women was even forced to have her child just outside the hospital under a tree.
The courts found that the women’s right to life were denied them and that it was the failure of the medical system to provide simple life saving services that lead to these mothers untimely deaths. The judges ruled that no mother – regardless of socioeconomic status – can be denied health care. The burden was placed on the state and on the hospitals to protect mothers who are extremely physically and economically disadvantaged in, and due to, pregnancy. Consistent with this ruling the judges ordered that all women who are living below the poverty line to receive 500 rupees per month in the 8-12 weeks before birth to ensure that the women have adequate nutrition in the last few months of pregnancy. And these payments are to be made regardless of age and the number of children previously born.
While the compensation amounts are relatively small (about $10 a month, and $1000 for a death settlement) they do provide needed financial assistance in times of need and much much more importantly it sends a moral message that mothers must be protected and that their protection is a state concern – not just an individual circumstance.
This is a much needed shift in legal mentality for India and provides a powerful example to every country in the world that the health and wellbeing of mothers can and should be protected.