Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(1) February 2017

The Neo-Colonialist Achilles’ Heel and Failures of Western Maternal Health Debates in Africa

Dr Robert Whalley

Author photo*An Achilles’ heel is a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall.
“When you look at the causes of maternal mortality, 91% of them occur in the last 3 months of pregnancy, during labour and delivery and afterward, abortion and birth control are irrelevant. The only ‘solution’ being offered [from the UNFPA] is that if a mother wants to stay alive she’s got to kill her baby. That’s outrageous” –
“It is an international disgrace that since the inception of the first Safe Motherhood Conference in Nairobi in 1987, none of the goals set by the international community to reduce the number of maternal deaths, have been met, including most recently the 5th Millennium goal, simply because mothers did not receive adequate care...” [2]

The UNFPA continues to fund, along with western governments and groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the use of Depo-Provera, the development of contraceptive implants and microchips, most recently the use of contraceptive drones, and advocacy of abortion in African countries, even though the overwhelming majority of the solutions to resolving maternal mortality involve providing proper prenatal care to identify high risk mothers in the final 3 months of pregnancy and essential obstetrical care (MaterCare’s 91% Solution [3]). The question for us is, how are we going to get the UNFPA and the Commission on the Status of Women to recognize this solution so that we can start saving lives?

The use of Depo-Provera has long been criticized for the negative impacts it has on women’s overall health. Even for those who are not morally opposed to the use of depo­provera, there are still significant health risks to the patient and in-depth screening should be done prior to prescribing such medication. However, no such precautions seem to be taken with the lives of women in rural Africa. Recent news reports have focused on the use of contraceptive drones.

Dr. One’ has for months been successfully flying birth control, condoms and other medical supplies to rural areas of Ghana on 5-foot-wide drones. The pilot program, which is jointly funded by UNFPA and the Dutch government, is now expanding into six other African countries in hopes of revolutionizing women’s health and family planning across the continent. The drone operator simply packs the vehicle with contraception and medical supplies from a warehouse in an urban area and pilots it over to places that are difficult to access by car. There, a local health worker meets the drone and picks up the supplies. (L. Bassett, “Contraception Drones Are The Future Of Women’s Health In Rural Africa” Huffington Post [4]

The idea that it’s too difficult to get supplies to an area, and yet you could get a competent and well-trained medical care provider to an area, is ludicrous in and of itself. Will the women who receive these drone-dropped contraceptives be informed that “Women who use Depo­Provera Contraceptive Injection may lose significant bone mineral density. Bone loss is greater with increasing duration of use and may not be completely reversible.[5]” Or that, “There have been reports of serious thrombotic events in women using Depo-Provera CI (150 mg).” And that “Women who have or have had a history of breast cancer should not use hormonal contraceptives, including Depo-Provera CI.” Will these women be monitored and followed up? Add to this satire the obvious conclusion that no amount of birth control pills, injectables or implants will save the lives of mothers at risk or vulnerable newborns, and one must wonder how such programs and pharmaceuticals are ever approved.

For decades now, women in the Western world have been told by the most vocal abortion advocates that without access to abortion they cannot be on a par with their male counterparts. And so men, in turn, have been told that to refute this erroneous claim is to be patriarchal and chau­vinistic. Can we imagine, if in any other civil rights move­ment, that the group fighting for those rights would be told that in order to achieve the freedoms they desire, they must first alleviate themselves of the very things that make them different from the ruling majority? It’s unthinkable, and yet this is what women in Western countries are being led to believe and reiterate day after day. So much so that proponents try to spread these colonialist ideas to African countries, and women are told that in order to survive their pregnancies they must kill their unborn children. As panelist, Obianuju Ekeocha, stated,

“There is not one African culture, but we have one common thread that runs through many countries: our understanding that human life is precious. [...] Through different platforms a lot of the West suggests strongly that abortion has to be legalized to reduce maternal mortality. This is diametrically opposed to a lot of our shared values, how we see life as being sacred from the moment of conception. So one cannot help but ask: is this another form of colonization? [...] I must say this to you, I am from a tribe called the Igo tribe in Nigeria. If I tried to translate, in my native tongue, to try to describe what it means for a woman to choose what to do with her body, I couldn’t. Most of the African native languages do not even have a way to phrase abortion to mean anything good.” (Minute 1:11, Best Practices for Maternal Health Care in Africa - CSW60 Side Event, March 17, 2016 [1])

The assumptions of many that access to abortion is inexorable single-minded "progress" and is a woman's "right", will never be accepted by African tribes such as the Igbos who consider abortion as a direct attack on human life at its earliest stages. Therefore the committed and concerted efforts by western entities to push these ideas then quickly become the attempt to colonize societies, where maternal deaths are their very highest. Yet, rather than do what is known to be necessary and effective, essential obstetrics, wealthy countries continue to promote abortion, which is not healthcare or compassion but is a care-less option which does violence to mothers and unborn children, by denying their basic care right according to Article 25 of the Universal Decla­ration of Human Rights; “Motherhood and Childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.”

Motherhood is a basic biological reality for the majority of women in the world. The UN, Western Governments, and rich philanthropists however seem more intent on preventing motherhood rather than preventing maternal deaths, and only by accepting and acknowledging this fact can we begin to draft a model of care that truly addresses the needs of women and children.

Achilles was a Greek hero, who was believed to be without weakness, but Achilles had one weak point, his heel. So too the debates of the CWS60 summit surround­ing maternal health care in Africa also have their weak points, the imposition of a form of neo-colonization which aims to infect the African culture with the devaluing Western view of motherhood and pregnancy, is not in keeping with their traditions and beliefs. They do not accept the positive alternative solution to reducing maternal mortality which is to provide life-saving Obstetrical care to all mothers (who are women) giving each the freedom to be mothers without risking their lives in the process. This is the truth that will set free mothers and unborn babies from death and despair.

Professor Robert Walley, Founder and Executive Director MaterCare International (Canada) St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada


  1. Dr. Robert Walley, during the Best Practices for Maternal Health Care in Africa - CSW60 Side Event [1}, March 17, 2016. (video):­health-care-in-africa-csw60-side-event/
  2. (UN-MCI Statement March 7th 2016)
  3. The 91% Solution: Put 91% of all funding into essential obstetrical projects in rural areas of less developed countries, which account for 99% of the world’s 350,000 annual maternal deaths.
  4. L. Bassett, “Contraception Drones Are The Future Of Women’s Health In Rural Africa”:
  5. Depo-Provera- FDA prescribing information