Today, the death of women during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum is considered simultaneously a public health, social inequality, and gender discrimination problem. In Mexico, approximately one thousand women die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum or from an unsafe abortion, experiencing a premature and sudden death in the midst of their most productive years, often with lasting consequences for their families and surviving children. As elsewhere, the great majority of these deaths would not have occurred if women had had prompt and unlimited access to quality emergency obstetric care, as well as easy access to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Most deaths are related to the substandard quality of available maternal healthcare services; services that are provided for free to most Mexican women in an overly saturated and underfunded public health system that also tends to overmedicalize and pathologize normal births. Their prematurity and abruptness, their occurrence in the process of giving life, the fact that these deaths exclusively affect women, and their avoidable nature make maternal mortality unacceptable in today’s social, political, and ethical arenas.
From an historical perspective, deaths in childbirth were much more common in past centuries than today; these deaths were considered inevitable and were accepted as natural occurrences until the late 19th century. However, surrounding rituals, the meaning attached to these deaths, related notions of womanhood and motherhood, and practices to prevent or avoid them, underwent changes according to broader sociocultural, political and religious transformations from Pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century.
As elsewhere, in Mexico maternal deaths declined considerably in the 1930s–1950s with the discovery of penicillin and the concomitant decline of puerperal fever; they reached a plateau in the 1960s and 1970s and began to slowly decline again in the 1980s–1990s with an even steeper decrease after the signature of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000; time when the reduction of maternal mortality became one of eight high-priority global public policy objectives, closely monitored by UN bodies.
Maternal deaths are a reflection of ingrained multiple social inequalities that characterize Mexican society at large; poor, rural, marginalized and Indigenous pregnant women face a 2–10 times higher risk of dying than the rest of Mexican women, because their access to contraception and to prompt and high quality obstetric emergency care is more limited. Today, research in the field of maternal mortality etiology, measurement and reduction includes the call for women-centered respectful maternal care, the elimination of discrimination in the provision of obstetric services and the application of a human rights perspective to health policies, programs, and care.
The prevention of communicable diseases, the containment of epidemic disorders, and the design of programs and the implementation of public health policies went through important transformations in Mexico, as in other Latin American nations, between the final decades of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. During that period not only did the advances in medical science make possible the identification and containment of numerous contagious diseases; it was also a time when the consolidation of formal medical institutions and their interaction with both national and international actors contributed to shape the definitions and solutions of public health problems. Disease prevention strategies were influenced by medical, scientific, and technical innovations and by the political values and commitments of the period, and Mexico experienced profound and far-reaching political, economic, and social transformations: the apogee, crisis, and downfall of the long Porfirio Díaz regime (1876–1910), the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), and the period of national reconstruction (1920–1940). Thus, during the period under consideration, and alongside the consolidation of an official medical apparatus as an integral part of public power, the promotion of public health became a crucial element to reinforce the political unification and the social and economic strength of the country.