Years ago, when my sister gave birth to her first child there were complications. Her second child’s birth was more of the same. Luckily everyone was healthy and fine in the end, but it did give me confidence in my choice to forever remain childfree. Years later, these events caused me to roll my eyes in the, “Tell me something I don’t know,” kind of way as I read a National Geographic article titled “American women are still dying at alarming rates while giving birth.“
To be clear here, this wasn’t an eye roll from lack of concern. This was the frustration eye roll. Afterall, the United States is supposed to be the leader of some kind of free world with the lifestyle markers all the “other” countries want, and here we couldn’t keep mothers alive during the birth of their children. According to the article, published in Dec of 2018 (with data from 2015), an average of 700 women in the United States died due to causes related to being pregnant or giving birth each year. The article would go on to state that 60% of the deaths were preventable. AND in a statement that should not shock you at this point (but make you angry) Black women died at three times the rate of their white counterparts. That’s 47.2% for Black women to 18.1% for those who were white. Native American women were sitting in the middle of this unacceptable listing with 38.8% of maternal deaths. These deaths were also only counting those occurring during live births. I have no idea how many deaths occurred where both the mother and baby died.
Another fun fact? The United States was one of only two first world countries on the list of high maternal deaths. The other one? Serbia, which I bet you didn’t even know was a first world country.
I’ve thought about this article a lot since I first read it, having heard about various women in my life and in the large world (Serena Williams anyone?) discuss their complication filled pregnancies and childbirth experiences. With health and inequality both in the news (which they should be and yet I wish didn’t) I decided to see if there were new numbers. Afterall, the article I read was published in 2018, but the data was from 2015 at the latest. I wondered how things had changed in almost five years.
Since National Geographic received their data from the World Health Organization, I started there. The most recent report shows data for the period of time from 2000 to 2017. The United States had 720 maternal deaths in 2017. Serbia had 10. Thinking that was unbelievable, I looked up our neighbor to the North. Canada’s maternal deaths came in at 40 for the year of 2017. Knowing the populations of these countries are vastly different I went to The World Factbook from the CIA to try and find a country that was similar in population and financial status. This is impossible. The closest I could get was Japan, and they still only had 44 maternal births in 2017.
After seeing the numbers from WHO I decided it would only be fair to look at the reporting from the United States itself. The most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out just this January. According to the press release: 658 women died in 2018 from pregnancy and childbirth. The percentages according to race where 37.1% for Black women, 14.7% for White women, and Native American women weren’t listed. While these numbers are slight improvements to the WHO data, the CDC also reported one unhappy increase. The maternal mortality rate for mothers went up from 2007 to 2018 from 12.7 to 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. This is not a reassuring statistic to report.
In summary, maternal deaths – and especially those women of non-white decent – are too high for a country like the United States. The reasons for this are numerous, and will take another article to explain in the detail they deserve. (But you can be assured lack of prenatal care, health insurance and high paying jobs are just some of the factors.)
Until then, I have included the following places to learn more and take action.
The following three resources come from the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
- Learn more about the Black Maternal Health Caucus with Rep. Lauren Underwood in this podcast with the American Hospital Association >
- Join me in signing this letter to support the reproductive justice movement.
- Contact your senator and urge them to support the Black Maternal Health Momnibus using the letter found here.
- Visit Every Mother Counts for educational and actionable resources.
In addition you can also:
- Listen to the women in your life when they talk about reproductive health issues. Support them in their choices, struggles and celebrations.
- Support Planned Parenthood which provides reproductive services as well as general health care, like cancer screening and COVID-19 information to both women and men.
- Share this article or the resources with others.
The article Being a mother isn’t easy in the United States, and it starts when the stick turns colors, was written by Elizabeth Schap and first appeared on Medium and just B more.
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