The likelihood of a woman dying from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes in the United States is higher than that of a woman in any other developed nation. Currently, the rate of maternal mortality (estimated at 26 out of 100,000 live births) is almost six times what it is in Scandinavia (2). It is higher even than in some developing nations, such as Chile, Thailand, and Iran. Moreover, unlike in all other developed countries, maternal mortality in the United States is still on the rise (1).
The risk of maternal death is significantly higher among African Americans (about three times higher), low-income women, and women who live in rural areas (2). These populations may be particularly vulnerable because they lack access to medical care. Supporting this idea, Texas has both the highest rate of maternal mortality and the highest rate of people living without health insurance (1).
Medical Professionals Are Unprepared to Save Women
Even wealthy, well-insured women are vulnerable, however. It is not just medical care that is needed, but quality medical care from professionals with specialty training. Some doctors that enter the specialty field of maternal-fetal medicine do so without ever having spent time in a labor and delivery unit. They therefore likely lack the experience necessary to treat issues such as preeclampsia (high maternal blood pressure that begins during pregnancy), hemorrhage, and cardiomyopathy (2). If improperly managed, these conditions can have devastating effects. Both the risks and consequences of maternal complications are often not taken seriously enough.
“This doctor told me, ‘Life goes on,’” said Patricia Shepherd in a recent interview with the BBC about her daughter’s death shortly after giving birth to her grandson. “My daughter’s life is not going on! You do not tell a parent that just lost their child, ‘Life goes on’” (1).
Earlier this year, NPR and ProPublica released findings from a six-month investigation of maternal mortality in the U.S. Since launching this project, they have heard from over 3,000 women who survived life-threatening complications, though often with permanent physical or emotional damage. Many of these women reported their concerns to medical professionals, who were slow to believe them. Others were hesitant to seek care because of the social pressures often put on new mothers. Leah Soule, who survived a hemorrhage, noted that “The emotional constructs our society puts around pregnancy and childbirth make the ideas of severe injury and death taboo. Childbirth is a messy, traumatic experience…Many women don’t seek care even when they instinctively believe something is wrong because they’re supposed to ‘be happy.’ Awareness and transparency are so important” (2).
To really address the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., we need to acknowledge that this is indeed a problem. The birth of a child can be one of the happiest events in a woman’s life. However, without care from qualified professionals who remain vigilant throughout the process and encourage their patient to express any concerns, it can also be the last event in a woman’s life.
In a future post, we will discuss initiatives aimed at reducing the rate of maternal mortality. In the meantime, readers, what steps do you think should be taken toward solving this issue? Please comment below.