According to an infographic I saw recently, pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest world-wide causes of death for 15-19 year old girls.  The infographic is understandably quite upset about that.  It offends our western sensibilities to hear of women this young, children almost, being enslaved to the womb  as soon as menses are happening.  To us, childbearing is something that is supposed to happen when your body is fully mature, you have decent security and a support network and a shiny hospital to give birth in.  Isn’t it?

Unfortunately, for much of the world, no.  No it isn’t.  To me, this is a prime example of the overriding challenge facing humanity now: reconciling our evolved instincts with our emerging rational thought.  We evolved to live in a very different world to the one that most of you who read these words actually live in, and even those furthest from ‘enjoying’ western civilisation probably do not have quite the life pressures of the first humans.

Childbearing is something that is supposed to happen as soon as possible, evolutionarily speaking.  The earliest humans had a rough old life, with a projected lifespan of around 20 years and the childbearing process had grown long and arduous, with a practical limit of two viable offspring at a time, those offspring being entirely dependent on the mother for a dangerously long period before they can start to contribute to the tribe.  In that situation it was advantageous (to the species as a whole) to breed as soon as possible, and as often as possible, the creation and nurturing of the next generation of the species taking evolutionary priority over the quality of life, or even survival, of the current iteration.

In the ‘civilised’ countries where marrying and breeding in the high school years is generally frowned upon, we face a terrible struggle to stop the randy little bleeders doing it anyway!  Anyone with a daughter, and who was once a teenage boy, sweats with panic at the thought of parties and concerts and nightclubs and school trips away.  The activation of the human reproductive system (after a very long wait compared to most other species) brings with it a compelling desire to use the damn thing, now, while the body is young and elastic and strong enough to bear the strains of savannah life, climbing trees to sleep, running from leopards and so on, while several months pregnant. We have beds now, and the leopards are generally no longer a problem, but that compelling desire is still there.

In the ‘first world,’ we’ve increased our lifespans, opportunities and standard of living to the point that, when viewed intellectually, the imperative to breed early does not seem so pressing, and we’ve taken control of our reproductive biology to the point that we can have sex just for fun, with a far reduced risk of unwanted pregnancies.  We don’t need to squeeze out children as fast as possible, in the hope that one or two of the nine mum birthed, before number ten killed her, will make it to adulthood.  We can plan it, get everything ready and go ahead in the almost certain knowledge that it will be ok.  In the west, a stillbirth or miscarriage is a seen as shattering tragedy, but for many elsewhere in the world it is a numbly accepted fact of life.

If we want the luxury of placing one’s own quality of life ahead of the biological imperative to perpetuate the species that western middle class life affords with its security, education and health care to be extended to all human beings, then, well, the security, education and health care have to be extended to them too.  It’s that simple, and it will mean that the middle classes of the west will have to bite the bullet and accept a slight reduction in their standard of living to effect a massive increase in everyone else’s.  Such a small sacrifice really…like going from you having a 46″ telly and me having no telly, to both of us having a 28″ telly.

We are really a very simple animal, and when achieving even the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not necessarily a given, then self-actualisation goes out of the window in favour of the older, more basic, drives.

People in the developing world facing a 35 year life span, in which infant and childbirth mortality will touch every family, in which one of a woman’s jobs is to birth new pairs of hands who will hopefully live long enough to help work the farm and…oh, please…keep us all fed for another season, will respond, have responded over generations, by developing societal norms that fulfil the biological imperative to reproduce, health and happiness taking  a much lower priority.

Viewed from our privileged perspective, these norms seem, well, not normal, and it upsets us that people are forced to live like that.  Eliminate situations like this by eliminating the economic, educational and health care gulfs between the world’s haves and have nots, and you eliminate the pressures that perpetuate the evolved, instinctual behaviour and allow rational consideration of one’s individual future to take place.

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