Mortality in women who have completed their childbearing may increase with the number of births experienced because of maternal depletion or a trade-off between reproduction and mortality. We report a systematic review of the evidence on this association. We searched Medline, Embase, Popline, and the Science Citation Index for published and unpublished studies up to September 2003, and the book catalogues of relevant London libraries. Where necessary we also contacted authors for additional information. Mortality declined with increasing numbers of births in twelve historical cohorts, but in eight contemporary cohorts the highest mortality was seen in the nulliparous and in women with more than four births. All effects seen were small and there were few statistically significant results. Studies examining the relationship in other ways (such as by linear trends or by mean number of births by age at death) found inconsistent associations. We discuss methodological, social, and biological factors that may have affected these associations.