Preventable Maternal Complications Are On The Rise, And This Is Not Okay

by Wendy Wisner
Layland Masuda / Getty Images

Let’s start with the good news: of the roughly 4 million women who give birth each year in the United States, the vast majority come home hearty and vibrant, with a healthy bundle of joy (or joys!) in their arms.

And yet, a growing number of moms—to the tune of about 50,000 per year, according to the CDC—are suffering traumatizing, debilitating, and life-threatening post-birth complications that often scar them for life.

And maybe the most shocking aspect of all this? This number appears to be rising.

WTAF, right?

I’ll give you the low-down. There is a term for the after-birth complications that moms suffer: Severe Maternal Morbidity (SMM). It’s different than maternal mortality, which is awful and tragic, but which thankfully affects a smaller number of moms (roughly 700 to 900 moms die each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth).

Severe Maternal Morbidity refers to any maternal complication that happens during pregnancy and childbirth that has significant short- and long-term effects on a mother. According to a recent editorial about this subject on NPR, these complications include things like hemorrhaging, organ failure, infections, and post-delivery surgeries (particularly of the uterus and surrounding organs).

Of course, women who survive these things should certainly be grateful that they lived, but the question is, at what cost? Many of these moms must deal with medical woes for months, years, or a lifetime, and almost all of these moms suffer emotional trauma, including post-delivery PTSD. And don’t forget about the many ways medical problems like these can totally devastate a family’s finances, often for many years.

What’s more, it’s totally shocking and reprehensible that this kind of thing is increasing in the U.S.

According to the CDC, serious complications from pregnancy and childbirth have increased by over 200% between 1993 to 2014. Much of that rise has been due to an increase in blood transfusions, but even if blood transfusions are excluded from this measure, complications have still seen a 20% increase during that time. Hysterectomies and the need for a ventilator (breathing tube) after birth top the list of complications.

“These numbers are really high, and far too many of them are preventable,” Dr. Elliott Main, medical director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, tells NPR.

So why on earth is this happening, and most importantly, what can be done?

According to NPR, part of the problem lies in the fact that many hospitals in the United States simply aren’t investigating the matter seriously enough, and thus aren’t able to pinpoint the problems and come up with viable solutions. Often, if a mother doesn’t die, the complications she suffers after birth aren’t investigated thoroughly by a hospital, if at all.

“More than 30 states and cities now have committees to review maternal deaths, but only one state — Illinois — has started to systematically examine severe complications,” NPR explains.

Another aspect of this is something so many of us moms can relate to. It’s the fact that so often, doctors put all of the focus on the mother during pregnancy, but after birth, moms are often basically on their own. They aren’t seen again until the six-week visit, and are rarely checked in on before then. And yet, the period right after birth is when so many of these scary and life-threatening medical events occur.

“The nature of our system is to focus on these women while they’re pregnant,” Eugene DeClercq, professor of community health services at Boston University School of Public Health, tells NPR. “And then if there are difficulties later, they get lost to the larger system that doesn’t particularly care about women’s health to a great degree unless they’re pregnant.”

Other factors that are likely contributing to this increase in complications include: rising rates of poverty, unequal access to health care or insurance, increases in obesity among mothers, and advanced maternal age. And we absolutely cannot take for granted how racial inequalities play into this—after all, black women and their babies are much more likely to experience pregnancy and birth complications, as well as mortality.

Does this all make you want to shake your fists and scream with rage at the top of your lungs? Well, it should. It most definitely should. It’s 2018, and we women are taking back the world. We want our lives, our voices, and our bodies taken seriously.

Yes, sometimes awful things happen in childbirth. We all know it’s not without risk. But for these complications to be increasing? NOPE. We need answers and action. Now. And listen up: no mother should receive less than optimal medical treatment because of her economic class or the color of her skin. Let’s end that bullshit right here, right now.

We live in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, and we should all be receiving the best healthcare possible—especially after we give birth to our nation’s next generation of citizens. We need to get to the bottom of why so many women are suffering medical complications after childbirth, and we need to solve this problem ASAFP.