Pregnancy remains a danger for women in America

by rita-henley-jensen | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 April 2011 21:02 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For 1,000 prospective new mothers each year in the United States not all is fine. In fact, many died while pregnant or giving birth—and African American women die four times as often as white women--earning this nation one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the developed world.

Nearly half could and should be saved, reported Sharon Johnson for Women’s eNews, if their health care providers followed the correct procedures.


In a third part of the ongoing Women’s eNews series, Black Maternal Health: A Legacy and a Future, to be posted on April 26, reporter Sharon Johnson documents how many of these deaths could be avoided, including the big killer of U.S. new moms—embolisms. In this piece, Johnson points out that of the prospective mothers who died as a result of an embolism—that is, a blood clot that shuts off a main artery.

Maternal mortality is carefully tracked worldwide because it is an indicator of the effectiveness of a nation’s medical care for all of its citizens. The United Nations maternal health report placed the United State in 50th place worldwide. The U.S. poor showing is even more startling because the United States spends more on childbirth-related care than any other area of hospitalization--$86 billion a year. Worse news yet: The maternal mortality rate in the United States is rising while it is plummeting worldwide.

In her second part of this five-part investigative series, Johnson quotes researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control saying the number of maternal deaths may be even higher because there is no federal requirement to report them.

Let’s be clear: These numbers document that young women in the prime of their lives are dying unnecessarily, leaving newborn infants to be raised by others. Often, those who lost their lives leave other small children behind as well. And as most studies have shown, mothers are not only a nucleus of families but most often serve as organizers and leaders within their communities as well. As far as can be determined, no studies have been conducted on the toll of a high maternal mortality rate on communities but I think we could all agree it could have a devastating effect.

In addition, the CDC indicates that up to 40 percent of the “near misses and complications” could be avoided as well. Some women take up to six months to recover from such medical mishaps; others never do.

The first part of the series posted in March, Women’s eNews focused a New York City health department report on maternal deaths between 2001 and 2005. The study provided ground-breaking statistics on the causes of maternal deaths in New York City and broke out the causes by race. First, 79 percent of all those who died had cesarean sections. Second, neither poverty, obesity nor pre-existing conditions explained the fact that African American new mothers died in childbirth seven times more often than white New Yorkers. Third, the leading cause of death for New Yorkers giving birth was embolisms—widely considered preventable--and 82 percent of those who died from this cause in New York were black; zero percent were white.

"Leveling the playing field for African American women in childbirth will require healing the health care system as well as the woman," Dr. William M. Callaghan, Williams told Johnson. "Hospitals and health care providers must change their policies and practices." Williams is acting chief of the maternal and infant health branch of the division of reproductive health at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The benefit for all women for reducing African American maternal mortality is a healed health system providing good care for all new mothers.  It can be done and might even reduce costs of care. What a joyous spring it would be if U.S. mothers enjoyed the same chance to live through giving birth as the women of Greece with a maternal mortality ratio of 2 deaths per 100,000 births.