A new report by the United Nations has accepted lower revised estimates of global maternal deaths. The move follows years of criticism from pro-life groups, which claim the higher estimates were used to justify the legalization of abortion.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) report “Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2008” estimates that the annual maternal mortality rate is about 350,000 deaths and falling. Previously, the World Bank, the WHO and other U.N. agencies had set the figure at over 500,000, reports the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM).

A study published April 12 in The Lancet found that maternal deaths worldwide totaled 342,900. It blamed HIV/AIDS for about 60,000 of the deaths.

Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said in an editorial accompanying the article that for the first time in a generation the study shows “persistent and welcome progress.”

Horton told the New York Times that advocates had pressured him not to publish the article until after the September summit on U.N. Millennium Development Goals.

Dr. Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG), charged that the independent report was an “embarrassment” for the WHO.

According to C-FAM, U.N. researchers and women’s rights groups confronted the authors of the study at a meeting in Washington last June and asked them to align with U.N. statistics to prevent confusion among the media and large donors.

WHO head Margaret Chan claimed the report said legal abortion reduced maternal deaths, but the report never mentioned abortion or family planning. Instead, it credited better economic development, education, better health care and lower birth rates.

C-FAM says that the head of the U.N. Population Fund and WHO’s lead statistician offered conflicting views about whether the report would reflect the lower numbers. Activists at the U.N.-backed Women Deliver conference rolled their eyes and laughed at the independent report’s findings, urging U.N. officials not to accept them.

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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is trying to rally support for $169 billion in new funding for maternal and child health.

Dr. Monique Chireau, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at Duke University, said that The Lancet study was “very objective” about obtaining its data while the WHO process was “not completely transparent.”

She said that the independent study’s authors have suggested that U.N. colleagues “quit making policy and focus on research,” according to C-FAM.