How We’re Doing: Maternal Mortality Increasing in the US

In the ongoing furor over abortion and health care, there’s an issue at the intersection of the two that has gone little-examined: maternal health. A new Amnesty International report released before this weekend’s critical vote—in combination with a call for action to President Obama—reveals a problem that remains under most people’s radar: Maternal mortality rates in the US have more than doubled since the 1980s.

In fact, maternal mortality in the US is now higher than in 40 other countries. And women of color are—as usual—hit the hardest by a flawed and grossly imbalanced system. In general, they are two to four times less likely to receive pre-natal care than white women, and black women in particular are four times more likely to die from complications. And, since women of color make up more than half of the country’s uninsured, they also have the lowest access to family planning services, pre- and post-natal care and quality health care.

Most troubling of all, the report concludes that the problem is almost entirely the result of a dysfunctional medical system plagued by outright discrimination, financial and bureaucratic barriers and serious systemic failures.

The good news is that the recently passed health care bill may alleviate some of these inequities. At the very least, it’s big step towards removing potentially life-threatening cost barriers for pregnant women and new mothers. Unfortunately, with that step forward comes a step back: Since half of all pregnancies are unintended, full access to sexual and family planning services is crucial to fixing this devastating problem, but the anti-abortion language in the health-care bill may make it difficult for insurers to offer abortion coverage.

Now that health care reform is a fact, the gravity of the rising maternal mortality numbers only reinforces the hypocrisy of those leaders who, with rhetoric advocating “life,” sought to kill a bill that would expand access to vital care for expectant mothers.

Read Ms. blogger Danielle Roderick’s take on this issue in her piece, “If you’re pregnant, you’ve been f*****d.


Catherine is an assistant features editor at Hyphen magazine and a first year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She interned at Ms. in the spring of 2010, and has since reported on the gendered impact of immigration enforcement in Arizona, the rights of health care workers in the Philippines and indigenous women's struggle against Big Oil in Canada. She has a B.A. in English and a minor in Women & Gender Studies from Arizona State University.