The Ethics of Mortality Policies

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Death is inevitable, but many causes of death of preventable. In this lesson, explore policies to reduce mortality rates, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Did you hear about the latest research in mortality? According to scientists, the current percentage of the population at risk of eventually dying is 100%. As it turns out, 100% of all people in the past had this same risk of death and well, look what happened to them. Mortality is not something we can hide from. Death is an inevitable part of life, so we can't stop it. But, we can learn from it and we can try to make sure that people aren't dying unnecessarily.

Around the world, nations and intergovernmental organizations are developing mortality policies: programs to reduce death rates of specific groups that are caused by preventable factors, such as poverty or curable disease. Yes, the final outcome is the same for everyone but we can still make sure that people take their time getting there.

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  • 0:01 Mortality
  • 1:01 Mortality Research
  • 2:19 Infant Mortality
  • 3:28 Maternal Mortality
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Mortality Research

One of the fundamental ethical guidelines for creating mortality policies is to be informed. When creating mortality policies, the outcome is literally life or death and so policies must be based on reliable, accurate information. This is where mortality research, or the study of the rates and causes of death in a given area and time period, comes into play.

What are the leading causes of death for diverse areas and segments of the population? What underlying factors could cause high mortality rates in a specific population? Are those factors realistically preventable? What strategies have been tried in the past? Those are the types of questions researchers try to answer.

One of the best ways of researching mortality rates is simply to keep good records. In recent years, governments and private health organizations alike have poured millions of dollars into improving record keeping systems around the world and the results are dramatic. In India, for example, improved records helped identify that some populations were actually at lower risk than assumed. By realizing this, the government was able to redirect some resources to populations that needed them more.

Infant Mortality

Now, let's look at some specific mortality policies. Many modern policies on reducing mortality are targeted at especially vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and poverty stricken or those with little access to healthcare. One of the most targeted groups however, is infants. Newborns have a naturally high risk of death and the majority of these risks are preventable. How do we prevent them? Effective policies include a mixture of access to newborn health screenings to detect early problems and simple education.

A startling number of parents around the world do not know the factors that can increase the risk of SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, simply because the information is not available. These practices alone are extremely easy to implement and many international organizations are pushing for them to be labeled as a human right. By making newborn health care an ethical issue, it puts pressure on governments to formally adopt policies to make this more available to the population.

Maternal Mortality

One of the other biggest focuses of modern mortality policies is in maternal mortality, or death rates for women caused by complications from pregnancy. Historically, pregnancy has been the leading cause of death for women. Today, this is an era where we see some of the greatest differences in areas with and without policies to help pregnant mothers.

For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with poor maternal healthcare, 1 in 26 women is estimated to die in childbirth. In areas with fully developed healthcare, the rate is 1 in 7,300. That alone shows what a difference these policies can make and again, simple changes can go a long way.

Access to birth control to prevent pregnancies, educating pregnant mothers about health risks and concerns, and improving access to public healthcare focused on maternal issues, have all been proven to drastically reduce maternal mortality. For example, when these simple, low-cost measures were implemented in Tanzania, maternal mortality decreased by 80% over a 4-year period. That is a major change.

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