Maternal and child mortality rates, the targets for two of the eight Millennium Development Goals, remain unacceptably high in many countries. Some countries have made significant advances in reducing deaths in pregnancy, childbirth, and childhood at the national level. However, on a sub-national basis most countries show wide disparities in health indices which are not necessarily reflected in national figures. This is a sign of inequitable access to and provision of health services. Yet there has been little attention to health equity in relation to the Millennium Development Goals. Instead, countries have focused on achieving national targets. This has led to an emphasis on utilitarian, as opposed to universalist, approaches to public health, which we discuss here. We recommend a policy of "proportionate universalism". In this approach, universal health care and a universal social policy are the ultimate goal, but in the interim actions are carried out with intensities proportionate to disadvantage. We also briefly describe an initiative that aims to promote evidence-based policy and interventions that will reduce inequity in access to maternal and child health care in China, India, Indonesia and Viet Nam.
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