Skip to content Skip to footer

The US Has the Highest Maternal Death Rate of Any Developed Country. Why Aren’t We Doing More About It?

The US is an anomaly when it comes to maternal mortality.

The United States of America loves babies. We can’t get enough of them. We love them so much, we’ll do anything we can to produce more of them — restrict access to contraceptives, abortion and even information just for the sake of more babies, no matter the cost. No price is too high; we’ll risk women’s health, safety and futures because as much as we care about babies, we really don’t care about the human beings growing them.

If we did, we wouldn’t keep letting them die.

Women in the US are eight times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related causes than women in countries like Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. An American woman is three times more likely to die than a Canadian woman. In so many ways, the US is an anomaly when it comes to maternal mortality.

Between 2000 and 2014, 157 countries around the world decreased their maternal death rates. The UK combated maternal death so effectively, a British man is more likely to die while his partner is pregnant than she is.

Meanwhile, the US was the only developed country to increase its maternal death rate, and one of only 13 total countries including North Korea. And the rate didn’t just increase slightly; it shot up 27 percent. In places like Texas, which has been actively fighting women’s access to healthcare, the maternal death rate doubled.

This dramatic increase isn’t a coincidence, it’s the result of our priorities — which don’t include women.

“The argument we make internationally is that [a high maternal death rate] is often a reflection of how the society views women,” says maternal health expert and Boston University researcher Eugene Declerq. “In other countries, we worry about the culture — women are not particularly valued, so they don’t set up systems to care for them at all. I think we have a similar problem in the US.”

We’re making it harder and harder for women to access critical healthcare and to prevent and terminate unwanted or complicated pregnancies, and the result is lethal.

In the US, half of pregnancies are unplanned, meaning women are unable to address chronic health problems before becoming pregnant. Making it easier for women to control their own reproduction would make it more likely that those babies we love so much grow up with mothers to love them too.

Our “fragmented” healthcare system makes it harder for pregnant women and new mothers to access the care they need, particularly for low-income women and minority women — who have significantly higher rates of maternal death.

There’s also an over-confidence in our healthcare system that maternal death is a thing of the past, which leads to a lot more attention for babies but not enough for mothers.

Programs, both federal and medical, intended to improve fetal and maternal health are overwhelmingly prioritizing babies over mothers. Some doctors specializing in maternal-fetal medicine don’t even have to learn about caring for birthing mothers or ever spend time in a labor-delivery unit.

When they’re discharged, women are commonly given information on how to tell if their infants are sick, but not how to monitor their own health postpartum.

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

Part of this has to do with our policies and procedures, or lack thereof.

According to Vox, “childbirth is one of the most common reasons women go into hospitals, and yet the American healthcare system handles complicated pregnancies with a stunning lack of preparation and precision.”

Researchers looking into maternal death found that most hospitals just aren’t prepared for pregnancy-related complications and don’t have simple things on hand that could save women’s lives. Or, they just don’t have the necessary procedures in place to act quickly.

California decided to address these problems years ago. Now, their maternal death rate is one-third the national average.

The California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative (CMQCC) analyzed the causes of maternal death in California, then created “evidence-based, step-by-step” toolkits to help healthcare providers prepare for and handle pregnancy and childbirth complications.

They also found that most hospitals just don’t have the necessary tools quickly accessible to save women’s lives during an obstetric hemorrhage, one of the leading causes of maternal death. So, they borrowed the idea of a “code blue cart” and made one for mothers.

Essentially, a group of California medical professionals decided to save women’s lives, and they have. Other states could too.

The decision we’re making to sacrifice women’s health, their access to healthcare and ability to make critical life decisions, is costing 700 to 900 American women their lives every single year. According to the CDC, 60 percent of those deaths could have been prevented. Those women aren’t just numbers, they were real people with names, with people who loved them. They also had stories, and ProPublica is working to make sure we know them.

So far, ProPublica and NPR have compiled the names and stories of 120 women who died as the result of pregnancy or childbirth in 2016. Women like Krystine Toledo-Gonzalez a part-time post-op nurse and mother of three who died six days after her daughter was born from a staph infection diagnosed too late.

Or Kira Dixon Johnson, who raced cars and jet skis, flew planes, and spoke five languages. Her husband describes her as “the closest thing I’ve ever met to Wonder Woman.” Soon after giving birth, she began to hemorrhage and died just 12 hours after giving birth. Obstetric bleeding is one of the most common causes of maternal death; 70 percent of cases are preventable.

Christen Vogel, 21, had a headache 38 weeks into her pregnancy and decided to take a bath to relax. Her husband, a US Marine, found her unresponsive in the bathtub. Christen and the baby both died, and doctors were unable to explain why

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $33,000 in the next 2 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.