MaterCare International combats vast problem of maternal and infant mortality

When Dr. Robert Walley, a Catholic and pro-life advocate, completed his medical studies at Westminster Hospital of London University in his native England in 1970, he was told by the medical board there that if he wouldn't perform abortions, “there's no place for you here.”

This blow to the young doctor's hopes was to lead, indirectly, to an organization called MaterCare International, which today provides life-saving medical care to thousands of women in developing countries.

On receiving the board's decision, Walley emigrated with his family to Canada. “I found myself unemployed, with a wife and three children,” he said. (Walley and his wife, Susan, were to have seven children.)

The family settled in St. John's, Newfoundland, after Walley completed a residency in obstetrics/gynecology in Toronto. He became a member of the teaching staff in ob/gyn at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a position he held for more than 25 years.

In the early 1970s, Walley went to Harvard University, to earn a master's degree in public health. The courses piqued his interest in the plight of women in Africa and other Third World regions.

“What I studied prompted me to take a sabbatical from my teaching position and travel to Nigeria in 1981,” he said. “I was shocked by the deaths of so many mothers during pregnancy.”

One of the major causes was unsafe, illicit abortions, which continues today in Africa, Walley said. “Mothers turn to the abortionist, in despair and desperation, when help is not forthcoming. But once she has had her baby destroyed, she returns to the awful poverty and ignorance from where she came.”

Walley said he wanted to start a pro-life organization to serve the needs of women in developing nations. This led to the founding of MaterCare in 1996, though he began working to reduce deaths among poor women immediately after his experiences in Nigeria.

“I saw, firsthand, that the world didn't give a damn about the plight of women in Third World countries,” he said. “Pro-abortion and birth control, which were, and are, the mind-set of many international health organizations, mean absolutely nothing when women giving birth are bleeding to death. You must focus on the curative, not just on so-called ‘reproductive health.’”

I saw, firsthand, that the world didn't give a damn about the plight of women in Third World countries.

Walley said the World Health Organization estimates that between 585,000 and 1 million mothers in developing countries die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Also, infant mortality rates are 10 times higher in those countries than in developed nations.

Other women, Walley said, suffer serious, but non-fatal, childbirth injuries, the most common being obstetric fistulae. That condition occurs because of unrelieved, obstructed labor. This leads to abnormal connections to the birth canal, and, as a consequence, the mother becomes incontinent. Often she is rejected by her husband, family, and society.

Walley teamed with other physicians who worked directly with poor women in Africa. One, Dr. John Wilson, has been in Ghana for more than 25 years. The other, Dr. John Kelly, is a consultant in a large teaching hospital in Birmingham, England, but has gone to Africa every year, for the past 30 years, to help women there.

“Since 1988, I have been involved in research, trying to reduce the unacceptable level of maternal mortality in Ghana,” Wilson said. “I met Dr. Walley in Rome and discovered we shared a mutual concern with maternal health and morbidity. This led to a partnership of faith in the spirit of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, and eventually to the formation of MaterCare International.”

Kelly called Walley “a dedicated doctor who for years has been trying and working to help these modern-day lepers. I could fill pages with good words about him and his works.”

Kelly, who heads MaterCare/UK, said he provides the clinical experience input for the organization. “I am privileged to give freely of my expertise to help my poor sisters in Christ,” he said.

Walley received attention from the Vatican in 1985, when he was appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Apostolate of Healthcare Workers for a five-year term. He has since been reap-pointed twice.

Just two years later, in Nairobi, Kenya, the Safe Motherhood Conference first drew wide attention to the alarming death rate among pregnant women and their infants. It issued an urgent call to action.

In 1990, at the World Summit for Children, a second call to action was issued to the international health community, to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality by 50%. A conference document said previous inaction to help save women and children in developing countries was a worldwide “conspiracy of silence.”

Even before the 1990 conference, Walley continued to campaign tirelessly on behalf of women in Nigeria and Ghana, seeking funds to improve the quality of prenatal and other medical care for them.

In 1989, he received a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency for his Safe Motherhood Initiative and teamed with Sister Ann Ward of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who also is a doctor and an expert in fistula surgery.

Walley helped her start a medical center in Nigeria, where the maternal morbidity and mortality rates are among the highest in the world. (A second center is planned for Ghana, where the Ghanian Conference of Bishops gave MaterCare land on which its $3 million facility.)

Other funds have come from the Bishops’ Conference in Canada and from Canada's Catholic Women's League, as a millennium project. The Sisters of Mercy have also made a substantial donation

Bishop Peter K.A. Turkson, bishop of the Archdiocese of Cape Coast, Ghana, issued a letter praising Walley and his associates for their life-saving efforts. “[W]e highly commend the efforts of Dr. Walley and his collaborators in Canada and Ghana, and recommend their proposal of the Fistulae Project to all who can help make this millennium gift possible,” Bishop Turkson said.

Because of Walley's decades-long efforts, more and more emphasis is shifting to the curative, not just preventive aspects of maternal care. In African villages, traditional birth attendants have been trained to recognize and refer high-risk mothers to district hospitals and to centers founded by MaterCare.

A new research program is also in the planning stages, to train birth attendants to manage life-threatening post-partum hemorrhaging. Also being established is an advocacy program to bring international attention to the suffering of so many mothers in developing countries and even some European countries.

MaterCare's main objective is to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality rates by 75% in the next 10 years. It also seeks to eliminate abortions through new initiatives of maternal service, training, and research, in accordance with the teaching of Evangelium Vitae.

The spiritual director of MaterCare, Father Kevin Malloy, of St. John's, called Walley “a driving force in the pro-life movement. Bob is a most dynamic and energetic physician who is very concerned about women's issues in medicine.”

That concern continues unabated. “We can get government money if we do our job properly and become bigger and more influential,” Walley said. “But the Church and the bishops must stand by us and support us. We're dealing with a world life issue here.”

At an international conference on women's health issues in Rome last February, Walley said, “In a small way, all mothers share in a special and intimate way in the Incarnation. They share intimately in (Christ's) suffering and death on the cross, and also share his mother's suffering at the foot of the cross, when they suffer the loss of a child.”

He added, “The millennium offers us all a golden opportunity to show our love and concern for mothers, wherever they are.”

James Malerba writes from Hamden, Connecticut.