New Maternal Mortality Data Could Help Address The Problem

Supermajority Education Fund

February 10, 2020

Public health experts hope newly released data on maternal mortality in the United States will help doctors and officials address the nation’s consistently high rate of such deaths. Published on Feb. 6, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report is the first maternal mortality data released since a standardized checkbox for maternal deaths was instituted nationwide on death certificates to streamline data collection and is also the first data of this kind which disaggregates the numbers from all 50 states for the first time. 

Researchers found that 658 women died in 2018 while they were pregnant or recently after giving birth. That’s about 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States, the highest rate in the developed world. These numbers are similar to those previously estimated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but the implementation of the checkbox underscores the accuracy of the rate. 

The new data also reveals how maternal health outcomes vary widely between states. The maternal mortality rates in southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky, were either close to or more than twice the national average.

“We can now start really looking at the states that really have problems,” Eugene Declercq, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, told Supermajority News. “And that may in turn but political pressure on those states to do more for women’s health care.”

Many experts believe that the lack of universal healthcare in the United States plays a major role in pregnant patients not receiving the care they need. Uninsured women often struggle to find coverage in their first few months of pregnancy, leading them to miss out on prenatal care, according to Declercq. “If you are eight months pregnant, they’ll take you in, they’ll do something, because they want to protect babies. Earlier in the pregnancy, that may not be as much the case,” he said.

Uninsured patients also struggle to get care in the weeks after they deliver their child, as emergency Medicaid coverage usually lapses 60 days after a pregnant person gives birth. Their newborns, however, will continue to be covered. “We’ve structured a system that is trying to protect babies and not their mothers,” Declercq said.

Because Black women and other women of color are statistically more likely to be uninsured, a lack of healthcare access is also a factor in why the Black maternal mortality rate continues to be more than two and half times higher than that of white women. Another factor is institutional racism. 

“There’s the tendency of clinicians and other professionals in the health field to not hear patients when they describe what problems they have,” said Declercq, adding that the most famous example of this is the case of tennis star Serena Williams, who revealed that she nearly died of a blood clot shortly after giving birth in 2017. “You don’t have a more prominent woman in the world, Black or white, and she wasn’t heard.”