The US continues to lag far behind other developed countries in addressing its high maternal mortality rate, especially in the black community. While maternal mortality rates have fallen in similarly developed nations (UNICEF), the rate increased by nearly 27% in the US between 2000 and 2014 (Obstetrics & Gynecology).
In response, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted this week to include $50 million in funding for programs aimed at reducing the maternal mortality rate in a bill to fund the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies. “I’m kind of blown away,” maternal health advocate Charles Johnson is quoted as saying in ProPublica. Maternal mortality is now seen as “not a black issue, not a white issue, not a liberal issue, not a conservative issue, not even just a women’s health issue, but what it truly is, which is a human rights issue.”
But statistics show that it is still very much a black and white issue. ProPublica’s Annie Waldman reports that nationally, black women die during pregnancy and childbirth at a rate more than triple that of white women. Additionally, women who deliver at hospitals that serve a disproportionate number of black women (often in neighborhoods disadvantaged by segregation) are more likely to have serious complications, such as infections and emergency hysterectomies, than women who deliver at hospitals that serve fewer black women.
Racial disparity in maternal mortality rates is getting more media attention as of late. Linda Villarosa writes in The New York Times that the “lived experience of being a black woman in America” contributes to black mothers’ and babies’ “life-or-death crisis.” In The Guardian, Leslie Casimir highlights the racial disparity in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. Five of ten documented maternal deaths in San Francisco in recent years were black mothers, but African Americans only make up 6% of the city’s population.
When black mothers suffer, their babies do, too. In a personal piece for LAist, KPCC reporter Priska Neely writes about her sister’s experience losing two babies to the high infant mortality rate for black babies. “[My sister] didn’t shed a tear when I told her the heartbreak she’d suffered was part of a national narrative that has hurt black families in America for decades,” Neely writes.
As mother, maternity care advocate, and model Christy Turlington Burns writes for CNN, “We could and should be doing better, America.”
A Plan for Reducing Maternal Mortality
How do we make things better? Elizabeth Broadbent, writing for Scary Mommy, recommends a four-part plan for reducing maternal mortality:
Ensure that every woman has comprehensive access to pregnancy care, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.
Provide girls and women with accurate information about pregnancy and pregnancy-related diseases.
Lower the rate of unnecessary c-sections.
Improve prenatal care and monitoring so that all pregnant women receive complete health work-ups. Pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes contribute to many maternal deaths.
My Birth Matters, a patient education campaign launched by CHCF in partnership with the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative and Consumer Reports, seeks to address points two and three in the plan. The goal is to support statewide efforts by educating women about the overuse of c-sections and encouraging meaningful conversations between patients and their care teams. Materials for providers who work with pregnant women are also available on our website.
Roe v. Wade Could Be Overturned
Finally, women dying in childbirth isn’t the only story about women’s access to health care in the news this week. The announcement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has raised concerns about what his departure could mean for Roe v. Wade and access to safe abortion services in the US.
A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that two-thirds of Americans do not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, ensuring that women’s health will be a key issue for voters heading into the midterm elections.
Use #MyBirthMatters to share the education campaign with the women in your life, and #EssentialCoverage to share your top health stories with me. Find me on Twitter or via email.
Xenia Shih Bion is an engagement specialist at CHCF, where she oversees social media and analytics to amplify the programmatic work of the foundation. She is the author of CHCF Blog’s weekly Essential Coverage column.
Prior to joining CHCF, Xenia was a research assistant at the Prevention Institute, where she wrote about nutrition policy. In addition, she has managed marketing and communications for a digital health start-up and an education technology nonprofit. Xenia received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley.