Maternal Mortality Rates Keep Rising

By Stacie Murphy, Director of Congressional Relations

Did you hear Serena Williams almost died after having her baby?

In a Vogue cover story that went online this week, Williams recounts how a relatively easy pregnancy turned into an emergency C-section after her daughter’s heart rate began dropping during labor.

The surgery itself was uneventful (or at least as uneventful as major abdominal surgery can ever be), but in the aftermath Williams, who is prone to blood clots, began experiencing alarming—and familiar—symptoms.

Suspecting that she had a pulmonary embolism—a dangerous blood clot in the lungs–she alerted a nurse and requested a CAT scan and anti-clotting medication. She got them, eventually, but not until after the nurse suggested it was just her pain medication making her “confused,” and the doctor Williams insisted on seeing examined her legs instead of her lungs. Of course, Williams was correct in her suspicion, and she ultimately got the treatment she needed.

Globally, maternal mortality has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. Hundreds of thousands of women have survived childbirths that would have killed them in years past. It’s a tremendous accomplishment and a result of heroic efforts by governments and doctors and activists around the world. 

But even as maternal mortality in the developing world decreases, it’s growing in the United States. One analysis found that the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is up by 27% since 1990. In Texas, it’s almost doubled.

America’s maternal death rate is more than three and a half times higher than Canada’s. It’s more than six and a half times higher than some Western European countries. It’s higher than the rate in Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, and China.

There doesn’t seem to be any one single cause. Americans have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions now than we did 30 years ago. We’re older when we have our babies. We have a patchwork healthcare system that doesn’t do enough to keep women healthy before they become pregnant. We have high rates of unintended pregnancies, which often lead to worse outcomes.

But it’s not just poverty, or obesity, or poor health insurance. Wealthy, well-educated, health-conscious women in the U.S. have a higher risk of dying than similar women in other countries. And as is so often the case, outcomes are worse for women of color. In fact, they’re a lot worse. From the ProPublca Article linked above on the death of Shalon Irving:

…a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition. (Emphasis mine, because LOOK AT THAT NUMBER!)

Activist Erica Garner passed away last month shortly after giving birth to her second child. Research indicates that had she been a white woman with the exact same medical conditions, she’d have had a much better chance of surviving.

I feel like I type this way too often lately, but seriously, WTF, America?

And Serena Williams—wealthy, supremely fit, empowered to push her medical team for the care she needed. And she still came this close to dying. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t been Serena Williams, tennis superstar and holder of what I am certain is diamond-studded health insurance. What if she had been Selena Williams, uninsured grocery store cashier? Would Selena Williams have survived?

Categories: Blog