Maternal mortality in the United States

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Maternal mortality refers to the death of a person during their pregnancy or up to a year after their pregnancy has terminated; this metric only includes causes related to their pregnancy, and does not include accidental causes.[1] Some sources will define maternal mortality as the death of a person up to 42 days after their pregnancy has ended, instead of one year.[2] In 1986, the CDC began tracking pregnancy related deaths to gather information and determine what was causing these deaths by creating the Pregnancy-Related Mortality Surveillance System.[1] Although the United States was spending more on healthcare than any other country in the world, more than two women died during childbirth every day, making maternal mortality in the United States the highest when compared to 49 other countries in the developed world.[3] The CDC reported an increase in the maternal mortality ratio in the United States from 18.8 deaths per 100,000 births to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 births between 2000 and 2014, a 26.6% increase.[4] As of 2018, the US had an estimated 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births.[5] It is estimated that 20-50% of these deaths are due to preventable causes, such as: hemorrhage, severe high blood pressure, and infection.[6]

Monitoring maternal mortality

Number of deaths from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management (excluding accidental or incidental causes) during pregnancy and childbirth or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, per 100,000 births

In 1986, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) created the Pregnancy-Related Mortality Surveillance System to monitor maternal deaths during pregnancy and up to one year after giving birth. Prior to this, women were monitored up to 6 weeks postpartum.[1]

In 2016 the CDC Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP) undertook a collaborative initiative—"Building U.S. Capacity to Review and Prevent Maternal Deaths"— funded by Merck under the Merck for Mothers program. They are reviewing maternal mortality to enhance understanding of the increase in the maternal mortality ratio in the United States, and to identify preventative interventions.[7] Through this initiative, they have created the Review to Action website which hosts their reports and resources. In their 2017 report, four states, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, and Ohio, supported the development of the Maternal Mortality Review Data System (MMRDS) which was intended as a precursor to the Maternal Mortality Review Information Application (MMRIA).[8] The three agencies have partnered with Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, and Utah to collect data for the Maternal Mortality Review Information Application (MMRIA); the nine states submitted their first reports in 2018.[9]

After decades of inaction on the part of the U.S. Congress towards reducing the maternal mortality ratio, the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations voted on June 28, 2018 to request $50 million to prevent the pregnancy-related deaths of American women.[10] The CDC would receive $12 million for research and data collection. They would also support individual states in counting and reviewing data on maternal deaths.[10] The federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau would receive the remaining $38 million directed towards Healthy Start program and "life saving, evidence-based programs" at hospitals.[10] MCHB's Healthy Start was mandated to reduce the infant mortality rate.[11]

Graph showing the trend in pregnancy related deaths in the United States from 1987 to 2014.

Measurement and data collection

According to a 2016 article in Obstetrics and Gynecology by MacDorman et al., one factor affecting the US maternal death rate is the variability in the calculation of maternal deaths. The WHO deems maternal deaths to be those occurring within 42 days of the end of pregnancy, whereas the United States Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System measures maternal deaths as those occurring within a year of the end of pregnancy.[4] Some states allow multiple responses, such as whether the death occurred during pregnancy, within 42 days after pregnancy, or within a year of pregnancy, but some states, such as California, ask simply whether the death occurred within a year postpartum.[4]

In their article, the authors described how data collection on maternal mortality rates became an "international embarrassment".[4][12]: 427  In 2003 the national U.S. standard death certificate added a "tick box" question regarding the pregnancy status of the deceased. Many states delayed adopting the new death certificate standards. This "muddied" data and obstructed analysis of trends in maternal mortality rates. It also meant that for many years, the United States could not report a national maternal mortality rate to the OECD or other repositories that collect data internationally.[4][12]: 427 

In response to the MacDorman study, revealing the "inability, or unwillingness, of states and the federal government to track maternal deaths",[13] ProPublica and NPR found that in 2016 alone, between 700 and 900 women died from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes. In "Lost Mothers" they published stories of some of women who died, ranging from 16 to 43 years of age.[13]

Healthy People is a federal organization that is managed by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2010, the US maternal mortality ratio was 12.7 (deaths per 100,000 live births). This was 3 times as high as the Healthy People 2010 goal, a national target set by the US government.[14]

According to a 2009 article in Anthropology News, studies conducted by but not limited to Amnesty International, the United Nations, and federal programs such as the CDC, maternal mortality has not decreased since 1999 and may have been rising.[15]

By November 2017, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City had established committees to "review deaths and severe complications related to pregnancy and childbirth" in their cities to prevent maternal mortality. New York's panel, the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee (M3RC), included doctors, nurses, "doulas, midwives and social workers".[16] New York City will be collaborating with the State of New York, the first such collaboration in the US.[16] In July 2018, New York City's de Blasio's administration announced that it would be allocating $12.8 million for the first three years of its five-year plan to "reduce maternal deaths and life-threatening complications of childbirth among women of color".[17]


Medical causes

This figure shows the top causes of pregnancy related deaths in the United States from 2011-2014.

Maternal death can be traced to maternal health, which includes wellness throughout the entire pregnancy and access to basic care.[18]

World Health Organization and the CDC's National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) define maternal death as that which occurs within the first 42 days after birth.

Since 1986, the Center for Disease Control conducts a Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance Service (PMSS) to study the medical causes of maternal death.[19] This tool defines pregnancy-related death as death during or within 1 year of completion of a woman's pregnancy by any cause attributed to the pregnancy to capture all deaths which might be pregnancy-related.

Race, location, and financial status all contribute to how maternal mortality affects women across the country. Non-Hispanic blacks account for 41.7% of maternal death in the United States.

In response to the high maternal mortality ratio in Texas, in 2013 the Department of State created the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force. According to Amnesty International's 2010 report, five medical conditions collectively account for 74% of maternal deaths in the US.

  1. Embolism: blood vessels blocked likely due to deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that forms in a deep vein, commonly in the legs but could be from other deep veins. Pain, swelling, tenderness in one leg not explained by injury could indicate a DVT. These clots may lead to pulmonary embolisms (PEs). PEs and strokes are blockages in the lungs and brain respectively and are severe, could lead to long-term effects, or be fatal. Pregnant women are at high risk for blood clots because pregnancy is a hypercoagulable state, a natural protective mechanism to prevent hemorrhage during delivery.
  2. Hemorrhage: severe bleeding. Hemorrhages can be caused by placenta accreta, increta, and percreta, uterine rupture, ectopic pregnancy, uterine atony, retained products of conception, and tearing. During labor, it is common to lose between half a quart to a quart depending on whether a mother delivers naturally or by cesarean section. Blood loss in excess of this quantity is referred to as Postpartum Hemorrhage. With the additional and severe amount of bleeding due to hemorrhage, the mother’s internal organs could go into shock due to poor blood flow which is fatal, or lead to disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). This is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide. Within the U.S. the rate has declined over the past few decades because of the increase in transfusion and peripartum hysterectomy.
  3. Pre-eclampsia: at about 20 weeks until after delivery, pregnant women can have an increase in blood pressure which could indicate pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia involves the liver and kidneys not working properly which is indicated by protein in the urine as well as having hypertension. Pre-eclampsia can also become eclampsia, the mother seizes or is in a coma, which is rare but fatal. Due to this risk, blood pressure is closely monitored at every routine obstetric visit, and patients with increased blood pressure may be referred to a high-risk specialist.
  4. Infection: each person has a different immune system, and when a woman is pregnant, their immune system behaves differently than originally causing increased susceptibility to infection which can be threatening to both mother and baby. Different types of infection include infection of amniotic fluid and surrounding tissues, influenza, genital tract infections, and sepsis/blood infection. Fever, chills, abnormal heart rate, and breathing rate can indicate some form of infection.
  5. Cardiomyopathy[18]: the enlargement of heart, increased thickness, and possible rigidness which causes the heart to weaken and die. This may lead to low blood pressure, reduced heart function, and heart failure. Other cardiovascular disorders are contributory to maternal mortality as well.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is another cause of maternal death, but is widely untreated and unrecognized, leading to suicide. Suicide is one of the most significant causes of maternal mortality,[20][21] and reported to be the number one cause by many studies.[22] Postpartum depression is caused by a chemical imbalance due to hormonal changes during and after birth. It is more long-term and severe than “baby blues", and they can be distinguished by both length and severity. Baby blues typically resolves within 10 days postpartum, while PPD lasts beyond 2 weeks. With the postpartum period being an exceptionally vulnerable time in a new mother's life, it is important for both Ob/Gyns and pediatricians to screen women for depression. Other perinatal mental health illnesses such as psychosis can recur especially if the mother has a prior relevant history.

Social factors

Social determinants of health also contribute to the maternal mortality rate. Some of these factors include access to healthcare, education, age, race, and income.[23]

Access to healthcare

Women in the US usually meet with their physicians just once after delivery, six weeks after giving birth. Due to this long gap during the postpartum period, many health problems remain unchecked, which can result in maternal death.[24] Just as women, especially women of color, have difficulty with access to prenatal care, the same is true for accessibility to postpartum care. Postpartum depression can also lead to untimely deaths for both mother and child.[24]

Maternal-fetal medicine does not require labor-delivery training in order to practice independently.[25] The lack of experience can make certain doctors more likely to make mistakes or not pay close attention to certain symptoms that could indicate one of the several causes of death in mothers. For women who have limited access, these kinds of physicians may be easier to see than more experienced physicians. In addition, many doctors are unwilling to see patients who are pregnant if they are uninsured or unable to afford their co-pay, which restricts prenatal care and could prevent women from being aware of potential complications.

Insurance companies reserve the right to categorize pregnancy as a pre-existing condition, thereby making women ineligible for private health insurance. Even access to Medicaid is curtailed to some women, due to bureaucracy and delays in coverage (if approved). Many women are turned down due to Medicaid fees, as well. According to a 2020 study conducted by Erica L. Eliason, cutting Medicaid funding limits access to prenatal healthcare, which has been shown to increase maternal mortality rates. This study concluded that Medicaid expansions directly correlated to decreases in maternal mortality rates.[26] Although the supportive care practice of a doula has potential to improve the health of both the mother and child and reduce health disparities,[27] these services are underutilized among low-income women and women of color, who are at greater risk of poor maternal health outcomes.[28] Women may be unable to find or afford services or unaware that they are offered.[28] A 2012 national survey by Childbirth Connection found that women using Medicaid to pay for birth expenses were twice as likely as those using private insurance to have never heard of a doula (36% vs. 19%).[29] Medicaid does not cover doula care during a woman's prenatal or post-partum period.[27] Women have also reported access and mobility as reasons why they are unable to seek prenatal care, such as lack of transportation and/or lack of health insurance. Women who do not have access to prenatal care are 3-4 times more likely to die during or after pregnancy than women who do.[30]


It has been shown that mothers between ages 18 and 44 who did not complete high school had a 5% increase in maternal mortality versus women who completed high school.[31] By completing primary school, 10% of girls younger than 17 years old would not get pregnant and 2/3 of maternal deaths could be prevented.[32] Secondary education, university schooling, would only further decrease rates of pregnancy and maternal death.

Of note, higher education still does not improve the racial differences in maternal mortality and is not protective for Black mothers in the way they are for White mothers. It has been found that Black mothers with a college education suffer from greater maternal mortality than White mothers with less than a high school education.[33]


Young adolescents are at the highest risk of fatal complications of any age group.[25] This high risk can be accounted for by various causes such as the likelihood of adolescents giving birth for the first time compared to women in older age groups.[34] Other factors that also may lead to higher risk among this age group includes lower economic status and education.[35] While adolescents face a higher risk of maternal mortality, a study conducted between 2005-2014 found that the rate of maternal mortality was higher among older women.[36] Additionally, another study found that the rate is higher specifically among women aged 30 years or older.[34]

Intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) constitutes many forms of abuse or the threat of abuse, including sexual, physical or emotional abuse and manifests as a pattern of violence from an intimate partner. Protective factors include age and marital status, while risk factors include unplanned pregnancy, lack of education and low socioeconomic status, and a new HIV positive diagnosis. The greatest at-risk group is a young, unmarried woman.[37] During pregnancy IPV can have disastrous maternal and fetal outcomes, and it has been found that between 3% and 9% of pregnant women experience IPV.[38]

Maternal adverse outcomes include delayed or insufficient prenatal case, poor weight gain, and an increase in nicotine, alcohol and substance abuse. IPV is also associated with adverse mental health outcomes such as depression in 40% of abused women.[38] Neonatal adverse outcomes from IPV include low birth weight and preterm birth, an infant who is small for gestational age and even perinatal death.

Through adequate training of healthcare professionals, there is opportunity for prevention and intervention during routine obstetric visits, and routine screening is recommended. During prenatal care, only 50% of women receive counselling on IPV.[39] Pregnancy is a unique time during a woman's life and for many women is the only time when regular healthcare is established, heightening the need for effective care from the provider.


African American women are four times as likely to suffer from maternal morbidity and mortality than Caucasian women,[3] and there has been no large-scale improvement over the course of 20 years to rectify these conditions.[40] Furthermore, women of color, especially "African-American, Indigenous, Latina and immigrant women and women who did not speak English", are less likely to obtain the care they need. In addition, foreign-born women have an increased likelihood of maternal mortality, particularly Hispanic Women.[41] Cause of mortality, especially in older women, is different among different races. Caucasian women are more likely to experience hemorrhage, cardiomyopathy, and embolism whereas African American women are more likely to experience hypertensive disorders, stroke, and infection. In the case of Black women in the United States, a study from the World Journal of Gynecology and Women's Health found that in addition to the link between cardiovascular disease and maternal mortality, racism in healthcare contributes to these outcomes. Notably, experiencing racism and discrimination in healthcare makes Black mothers less likely to trust the healthcare system, and the authors of this study recommend that addressing this is key to rebuilding trust and encouraging reliance on healthcare system.[42] Distrust in the healthcare system can be detrimental for the health and wellbeing of Black and minority mothers and their infants. Distrust in the healthcare system often results in reduced encounters with the system, which can be very harmful given the established association between late and inadequate prenatal care and poor pregnancy outcomes such as low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality.[43] According to the Listening to Mothers III Survey, 40% of minority participants experienced communication issues and nearly one-quarter of minority mothers felt discriminated against during birth hospitalization. The same survey revealed that Black and Hispanic mothers were nearly three times more likely to experience discrimination in the healthcare system due to their race, language or culture.[43] These issues are exacerbating the observed maternal and infant morbidity and mortality disparity between minority mothers and White mothers in the United States.

Another factor contributing to the increased maternal and infant morbidity and mortality rates in African American and minority women is the difference in delivery hospital quality between minority women and White women. According to a study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth A. Howell, racial and ethnic minority women deliver "in different and lower quality hospitals" than White women. According to Dr. Howell, hospitals where African American women were disproportionately cared for during birth, "had higher risk-adjusted severe maternal morbidity rates for both Black and White women in those hospitals."[43] In NYC, Black women were more likely to deliver in hospitals with a higher rate of "risk-adjusted severe maternal morbidity rates" and a study conducted in the same City revealed that if African American women delivered in the same hospitals as White women, "1000 Black women could avoid severe morbid events during their delivery hospitalization, which could reduce the Black severe maternal morbidity rate from 4.2% to 2.9%."[43]

The US has been shown to have the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths o/c maternal mortality amongst all the industrialized countries. The CDC first implemented the Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System in 1986 and since then maternal mortality rates have increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 17.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. The issue of maternal mortality disproportionately affects women of color when compared with the rate in white non-Hispanic women. The following statistics were retrieved from the CDC and show the rate of maternal mortality between 2011 and 2015 per 100000 live births: Black non-Hispanic -42.8, American Indian/Alaskan Native non-Hispanic-32.5, Asian/Pacific Islander on-Hispanic -14.2, White non-Hispanic-13.0, and Hispanic -11.4.[44]

There are racial disparities present when considering maternal mortality in the United States, with black women being 3 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications in comparison to white, Asian, and Hispanic women. The causes of death amongst these women were also different, some being more unconventional like hypertension and venous thromboembolisms.[45]


It is estimated that 99% of women give birth in hospitals with fees that average between $8,900-$11,400 for vaginal delivery and between $14,900-$20,100 for a cesarean.[46] Many women cannot afford these high costs, nor can they afford private health insurance, and even waiting on government-funded care can prove to be fatal, since delays to coverage usually result in women not getting the care they need from the start.

Other risk factors

Some other risk factors include obesity, chronic high blood pressure, increased age, diabetes, cesarean delivery, and smoking. Attending less than 10 prenatal visits is also associated with a higher risk of maternal mortality.[31]

The Healthy People 2010 goal was to reduce the c-section rate to 15% for low-risk first-time mothers, but that goal was not met and the rate of c-sections has been on the rise since 1996 and reached an all-time high in 2009 at 32.9%.[clarification needed] Excessive and non-medically necessary cesareans can lead to complications that contribute to maternal mortality.[3]

Geographic location has been found to be a contributing factor as well. Data has shown that rates of maternal mortality are higher in rural areas of the United States. In 2015, the rate of maternal mortality in rural areas was 29.4 per 100,000 live births as compared to 18.2 in metropolitan areas.[47]


Inconsistent obstetric practice,[48] increase in women with chronic conditions, and lack of maternal health data all contribute to maternal mortality in the United States. According to a 2015 WHO editorial, a nationally implemented guideline for pregnancy and childbirth, along with easy and equal access to prenatal services and care, and active participation from all 50 states to produce better maternal health data are all necessary components to reduce maternal mortality.[49] The Hospital Corporation of America has also found that a uniform guideline for birth can improve maternal care overall. This would ultimately reduce the amount of maternal injury, c-sections, and mortality. The UK has had success drastically reducing preeclampsia deaths by implementing a nationwide standard protocol.[48] However, no such mandated guideline currently exists in the United States.[3]

To prevent maternal mortality moving forward, Amnesty International suggests these steps:

  1. Increase government accountability and coordination
  2. Create a national registry for maternal and infant health data while incorporating intersections of gender, race, and social/economic factors
  3. Improve maternity care workforce
  4. Improve diversity in maternity care
  5. Public health sector/government (federal/state/local level) should collaborate with the local community leaders in creating more awareness of maternal mortality rate in local communities.
  6. Enlighten women on importance of early prenatal care registration.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, out-of-hospital births (such as home births and birthing centers with midwifery assistance) "generally provided a lower risk profile than hospital births."[50]

Procedures such as Episiotomies and cesareans, while helpful in some cases, when administered unnecessarily increase the risk of maternal death.[3] Midwifery and mainstream obstetric care can be complementary,[15] which is commonly the case in Canada, where women have a wide arrange of pregnancy and birthing options, wherein informed choice and consent are fundamental tenants of their reformed maternity care.[51] The maternal mortality rate is two times lower in Canada than the United States, according to a global survey conducted by the United Nations and the World Bank.[52]

Gender bias, implicit bias, and obstetric violence in the medical field are also important factors when discussing maternal wellness, care, and death in the United States.[53]

Comparisons by state

It is clear that the U.S. has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. is to be considered one of the wealthiest and most developed countries on the globe but seems to lack in some areas in the health system. In the U.S., hospital bills for maternal healthcare costs over $98 billion, and concerns about the degradation of the maternal resulted in a state-by-state breakdown. In the United States, Maternal Mortality has been increasing in the South for the past couple of years, specifically in Georgia. The lack of health professionals has limited access to healthcare, especially in communities where they lack knowledge of prevention. Maternal mortality is one of the health issues that can be prevented if it’s addressed appropriately. This is a gap in healthcare that needs to be addressed for further prevention especially as the demand for maternal healthcare workers was expected to increase by 6% by 2020. It is clear that Georgia lacks prevention because they do not have access to care and providers in their community. The Spotlight in Poverty states 730,000 Hispanics and Blacks are below 200% level. Less than a quarter of Georgia’s population lives in poverty and they are minorities. Living in poverty does increase the chances of maternal mortality because women and children do not have the finances to travel to areas in Georgia that have healthcare access. As of 2018, only 79 counties have OBGYN, within the past two years this has declined especially under the Trump Administration. This shortage of maternal healthcare workers is prevalent throughout the country, where as of 2016, 46 percent of U.S. counties have no OB-GYNs and 56 percent have no nurse midwives, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.[54]

Maternal Mortality by State in 2018 [2]
State Status MMR [lower-alpha 1][2]
California 1 4.5
Massachusetts 2 6.1
Nevada 3 6.2
Colorado 4 11.3
Hawaii 5 11.7
West Virginia 5 11.7
Alabama 7 11.9
Minnesota 8 13.0
Connecticut 9 13.2
Oregon 10 13.7
Delaware 11 14.0
Wisconsin 12 14.3
Washington 13 14.8
Virginia 14 15.6
Maine 15 15.7
North Carolina 16 15.8
Pennsylvania 17 16.3
Illinois 18 16.6
Nebraska 19 16.8
New Hampshire 19 16.8
Utah 19 16.8
Kansas 22 17.7
Iowa 23 17.9
Rhode Island 24 18.3
Arizona 25 18.8
North Dakota 26 18.9
Kentucky 27 19.4
Michigan 27 19.4
Ohio 29 20.3
New York 30 20.6
Idaho 31 21.2
Mississippi 32 22.6
Tennessee 33 23.3
Oklahoma 34 23.4
Maryland 35 23.5
Florida 36 23.8
Montana 37 24.4
Wyoming 38 24.6
New Mexico 39 25.6
South Carolina 40 26.5
South Dakota 41 28.0
Missouri 42 32.6
Texas 43 34.2
Arkansas 44 34.8
New Jersey 45 38.1
Indiana 46 41.4
Louisiana 47 44.8
Georgia 48 46.2
Alaska No data
Vermont No data
  1. MMR: maternal mortality ratio- number of deaths per 100,000 births.[2]

Comparisons with other countries

Comparison of the US maternal death rate to the death rate in other countries is complicated by the lack of standardization. Some countries do not have a standard method for reporting maternal deaths and some count in statistics death only as a direct result of pregnancy.[55]

In the 1950s, the maternal mortality rate in the United Kingdom and the United States was the same. By 2018, the rate in the UK was three times lower than in the United States,[56] due to implementing a standardized protocol.[48] In 2010, Amnesty International published a 154-page report on maternal mortality in the United States.[57] In 2011, the United Nations described maternal mortality as a human rights issue at the forefront of American healthcare, as the mortality rates worsened over the years.[58] According to a 2015 WHO report, in the United States the MMR between 1990 and 2013 "more than doubled from an estimated 12 to 28 maternal deaths per 100,000 births."[59] By 2015, the United States had a higher MMR than the "Islamic Republic of Iran, Libya and Turkey".[49][60] In the 2017 NPR and ProPublica series "Lost Mothers: Maternal Mortality in the U.S." based on a six-month long collaborative investigation, they reported that the United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality than any other developed country, and it is the only country where mortality rate has been rising.[61] The maternal mortality rate in the United States is three times higher than that in neighboring Canada[48] and six times higher than in Scandinavia.[62] As of 2020, the United States maternal mortality rate was two times higher than Canada and 10 times higher than New Zealand's.[5]

In the United States specifically, maternal mortality is still a prevalent issue in health care. From the year 2003 to 2013, only 8 countries worldwide saw an increase of the maternal mortality rate. The United States was included in this group, seeing an increase in the pregnancy-related mortality ratio over the past 3 decades. Looking at the years 1990-2013 from a world-wide perspective, the United States of America was the only country to see an increase in the maternal mortality rate over this time period.[45]

Maternal Mortality Is Rising in the U.S. As It Declines Elsewhere

The US has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world.[63] The US has the "highest rate of maternal mortality in the industrialized world."[64] In the United States, the maternal death rate averaged 9.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births during the years 1979–1986,[65] but then rose rapidly to 14 per 100,000 in 2000 and 17.8 per 100,000 in 2009.[66] In 2013 the rate was 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births.[67] It has been suggested that the rise in maternal death in the United States may be due to improved identification and misclassification resulting in false positives.[68] The rate has steadily increased to 18.0 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014.[66] Between 2011 and 2014, there were 7,208 deaths that were reported to the CDC that occurred for women within a year of the end of their pregnancy. Out of this there were 2,726 that were found to be pregnancy-related deaths.[66]

Since 2016, ProPublica and NPR investigated factors that led to the increase in maternal mortality in the United States. They reported that the "rate of life-threatening complications for new mothers in the U.S. has more than doubled in two decades due to pre-existing conditions, medical errors and unequal access to care."[64] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, c. 4 million women who give birth in the US annually, over 50,000 a year, experience "dangerous and even life-threatening complications."[64]

According to a report by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1993 the rate of Severe Maternal Morbidity, rose from 49.5 to 144 "per 10,000 delivery hospitalizations" in 2014, an increase of almost 200 percent. Blood transfusions also increased during the same period with "from 24.5 in 1993 to 122.3 in 2014 and are considered to be the major driver of the increase in SMM. After excluding blood transfusions, the rate of SMM increased by about 20% over time, from 28.6 in 1993 to 35.0 in 2014."[69]

The past 60 years have consistently shown considerable racial disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. Between 2011 and 2014, the mortality ratio for different racial populations based on pregnancy-related deaths was as follows: 12.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women, 40.0 for black women, and 17.8 for women of other races.[70] This shows that black women have between three and four times greater chance of dying from pregnancy-related issues. It has also been shown that one of the major contributors to maternal health disparities within the United States is the growing rate of non-communicable diseases.[70] In addition, women of color have not received equal access to healthcare professionals and equal treatment by those professionals.[71]

“Black women’s poor reproductive outcomes are often seen as a women’s personal failure. For example, Black women’s adverse birth outcomes are typically discussed in terms of what the women do, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, and having less than optimal eating habits that lead to obesity and hypertension. They may be seen to be at risk based on the presumption that they are ‘single,’ when in fact they have a partner- but are unmarried.”.[72] Black women in the United States are dying at higher rates than white women in the United States. The United States has one of the worst maternal mortality rates despite it being a developed nation.[73]

It is unclear why pregnancy-related deaths in the United States have increased. It seems that the use of computerized data servers by the states and changes in the way deaths are coded, with a pregnancy checkbox added to death certificates in many states, have been shown to improve the identification of these pregnancy-related deaths. Before 2016, there was not a standardized way to report maternal deaths in the United States. Each state was using a different method causing variation in MMR across the country. As more and more states implemented the checkbox however, there was a large increase in the number of Maternal deaths reported. However, this does not contribute to decreasing the actual number of deaths. Also, errors in reporting of pregnancy status have been seen, which most likely leads to an overestimation of the number of pregnancy-related deaths.[66] Again, this does not contribute to explaining why the death rate has increased but does show complications between reporting and actual contributions to the overall rate of maternal mortality.[70]

Even though 99% of births in the United States are attended by some form of skilled health professional, the maternal mortality ratio in 2015 was 14 deaths per 100,000 live births[74] and it has been shown that the maternal mortality rate has been increasing. Also, the United States is not as efficient at preventing pregnancy-related deaths when compared to most of the other developed nations.[70]

The United States took part in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set forth from the United Nations. The MDGs ended in 2015 but were followed-up in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals starting in 2016. The MDGs had several tasks, one of which was to improve maternal mortality rates globally. Despite their participation in this program as well as spending more than any other country on hospital-based maternal care, however, the United States has still seen increased rates of maternal mortality. This increased maternal mortality rate was especially pronounced in relation to other countries who participated in the program, where during the same period, the global maternal mortality rate decreased by 44%.[70] Also, the United States is not currently on track to meet the Healthy People 2020 goal of decreasing maternal mortality by 10% by the year 2020 and continues to fail in meeting national goals in maternal death reduction.[70] Only 23 states have some form of policy that establishes review boards specific to maternal mortality as of the year 2010.[70]

In an effort to respond to the maternal mortality rate in the United States, the CDC requests that the 52 reporting regions (all states and New York City and Washington DC) send death certificates for all those women who have died and may fit their definition of pregnancy-related death, as well as copies of the matching birth or death records for the infant.[66] However, this request is voluntary and some states may not have the ability to abide by this effort.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) provided additional access to maternity care by expanding opportunities to obtain health insurance for the uninsured and mandating that certain health benefits have coverage. It also expanded the coverage for women who have private insurance. This expansion allowed them better access to primary and preventative health care services, including for screening and management of chronic diseases. An additional benefit for family planning services was the requirement that most insurance plans cover contraception without cost-sharing. However, more employers are able to claim exemptions for religious or moral reasons under the current administration. Also under the current administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has decreased funding for pregnancy prevention programs for adolescent girls.[2]

Those women covered under Medicaid are covered when they receive prenatal care, care received during childbirth, and postpartum care. These services are provided to nearly half of the women who give birth in the United States. Currently, Medicaid is required to provide coverage for women whose incomes are at 133% of the federal poverty level in the United States.[2]

Deaths per 100,000 live births

Country MMR (deaths per 100,000 live births)
United States 26.4
U.K 9.2
Portugal 9
Germany 9
France 7.8
Canada 7.3
Netherlands 6.7
Spain 5.6
Australia 5.5
Ireland 4.7
Sweden 4.4
Italy 4.2
Denmark 4.2
Finland 3.8

There are many possible reasons why the United States has a much larger MMR than other developed countries: many hospitals are unprepared for maternal emergencies, 44% of maternal-fetal grants do not go towards the health of the mother, and pregnancy complication rates are continually increasing.

See also


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External links