America is one of only two countries in the world where the rate of deaths during pregnancy increased between 1990 and 2018. In an exhaustive expose in National Geographic, the news magazine details the causes of the country’s high rate of death for pregnant women, the widening racial disparity, and the progress meant to help alleviate the unnecessary and tragic problem. Given the increased attention to the issue in recent years, public health advocates are hopeful the trend will begin reversing itself in the next few years.
Overall, 700 women die each year giving birth in the United States – a rate of approximately 14 deaths per 100,000 births. However, this data does not show the wide racial disparities in the maternal death rate. For black Americans, the likelihood of dying during birth is more than three times higher than the average at 47 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Native Americans also have a higher maternal death rate at almost 39 per 100,000. Comparatively, Hispanic and Asian American women have a lower-than-average rate of maternal deaths at 12.2 and 11.6, respectively. Researchers and public health advocates say the high maternal death rates are directly linked to a woman’s ability to access adequate prenatal healthcare – with almost 9 percent of black Americans receiving no prenatal care before giving birth. The research found a full 60 percent of the maternal deaths last year were fully preventable.
With more attention given to America’s creeping maternal death rate over the last year, politicians appear ready to finally act. On a federal level, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act. The legislation, which is supported by both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump, will fund state committees and research on the subject, train hospital staff on best practices to prevent maternal deaths, and require each state to investigate every maternal death. The Republican supporters of the bill say the bill will provide flexibility for states to develop and implement their own approaches to reducing the rate of maternal deaths. In addition to federal legislation, cities are also stepping up. The news magazine article highlights efforts by Washington D.C. to help pregnant women give birth safely, which includes a now-yearly “Maternal and Infant Health” summit. The city has also signed an agreement with George Washington University to build a full-fledged trauma center and maternity ward in the poorest section of the city. The new hospital is expected to begin construction in 2020 and open in 2023.
Politicians and journalists are rightfully disturbed by the constant uptick in maternal deaths across the country. As one of only two countries – Serbia is the other country – with a higher rate of mothers dying during childbirth compared to thirty years ago, these preventable deaths are inexcusable. Given the recent legislation in Congress and cities across the country, American women will hopefully have less to fear when giving birth in the near future.