WTF? Maternal Mortality Rates In The U.S. Are On The Rise

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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A few weeks ago, I came across an article by ProPublica/NPR that shook me to my core. It was the story of Lauren Bloomstein, a 33-year-old mother who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a severe type of preeclampsia (HELLP syndrome) after an otherwise uncomplicated, healthy pregnancy and birth.

Bloomstein’s preeclampsia wasn’t discovered until after she gave birth, and she deteriorated so quickly it was too late to save her. This mom died at the hospital where she worked as a NICU nurse — a hospital that she trusted and where she felt safe.

The article recounted her family’s heartbreaking story and highlighted a problem that many of us don’t think about very much: the fact that many more women than we realize die after childbirth and our country actually has an abysmally high maternal mortality rate.

ProPublica/NPR shares that every year, between 700 and 900 women die from childbirth in the U.S., calling our rates “the worst record in the developed world.”

Holy shit, right? But what struck me hardest is that our country’s maternal mortality rates have actually increased in recent years (about a 26% increase in from 2000 to 2014).


The ProPublica/NPR article has an interesting take on why our maternal mortality rates are so dangerously high: It’s that doctors are spending too much time concentrating on the health and well-being of the baby during and after childbirth while neglecting to tend to the mother.

“We worry a lot about vulnerable little babies,” Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy and advocacy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) tells ProPublica/NPR, adding that “we don’t pay enough attention to those things that can be catastrophic for women.”

The story of Lauren Bloomstein is a good example. Her baby’s heart rate and vital signs were continually monitored during and after the birth, but the article says there were long stretches during that same time when Bloomstein’s vital signs were not monitored sufficiently, which is why her preeclampia symptoms were missed until it was too late.

While absolutely tragic, this sort of thing doesn’t surprise me very much unfortunately. It’s not just our medical establishment that seems to focus all too intensely on babies during and after birth. (Don’t get me wrong: Doting upon babies and keeping them safe is a top priority here, but it can’t be at the expense of a mother’s health and well-being.) Our culture does the same thing. During pregnancy, many of us feel like we’re just the vessel that holds the all-important baby, and after the baby arrives, all the fanfare and attention remains focused on the baby. Once women leave the hospital, their health-related problems aren’t tended to until the six-week mark, unless they have what they themselves consider to be a medical emergency.

It should be noted here that maternal mortality isn’t just defined by what happens during and directly after birth, but anytime within 42 days of birth. These post-birth complications, which are often unnoticed, can become dangerously serious as well.

ProPublica/NPR also cites the fact that more and more mothers are having babies later in life, potentially leading to increased medical complications which may be a reason why the maternal mortality rates have risen. Our increasing rates of C-sections, which can lead to more serious complications than vaginal births, might also be a cause, according to the article.

But perhaps even more glaring than all of this is something that ProPublica/NPR touches upon. It is elaborated on in a thought-provoking Slate article that came out soon after: It’s the fact that maternal mortality can actually be traced to systemic inadequacies in our country.

According to Slate, there are two main reasons why our maternal mortality stats are so abysmal: poverty and lack of access to high-quality health care.

For example, women of color, who are more likely to face poverty and adversary, are also more than 3 times as likely as white women to die in childbirth. The article also discusses the fact that planned pregnancies are proven to be safer for women, which means that women who have less access to health care before, during, and after pregnancy are much more likely to face potentially dangerous complications.

Much of this access is directly tied to governmental policies that allow, or limit, access to health care to poorer families (like Medicaid and Planned Parenthood, for example). The Slate article (which, by the way, was written by two maternal-fetal medicine specialists) pulls no punches about how the current administration’s ideas about health care coverage will negatively affect our most vulnerable citizens.

“Unfortunately, many recent policies put forth by both state legislatures and our current federal government will greatly decrease the access to this kind of health care,” write the authors. “The loss, or forced dysfunction, of Obamacare will only increase the problems that lead to maternal mortality; Trumpcare will likely make those changes dramatic and sustained.”

If you are as outraged as I am about some of the possible cuts to health care, especially regarding access and insurance for our most vulnerable citizens, don’t just sit there. Pick up the phone and call your reps (or try Resistbot if you don’t love making phone calls — it’s super easy).

Demand that all women have equal access to high-quality health care, especially during their childbearing years. This is a life-or-death situation, folks.

Now, I know that thinking about things like women dying in childbirth is not something any of us enjoy. And while it isn’t something we necessarily need to be terrified of personally, we need to be aware that it is a growing issue in the U.S. and one that shouldn’t be ignored.

All mothers in this country deserve the best shot at motherhood we can give them, and now is the time for all of us to acknowledge the disparities in our system, shout about them from the rooftops, and do something to help change them.

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