Women in the Senate are Demanding Accountability—and Solutions—for the Maternal Health Crisis in the U.S.

The Maternal Health Accountability Act, bipartisan legislation sponsored by senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) that aims to put an end to the maternal mortality crisis, passed Tuesday out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions’ (HELP) and is now awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

“In the 21st century, no mother should have to worry about dying during childbirth, especially in a country as advanced as the United States,” said Heitkamp. “Rising maternal mortality rates must be urgently addressed, and we need to better understand this crisis so we can more effectively tackle it.”

The bill would expand maternal mortality review committees (MMRCs) that study the causes of maternal death and work to increase the number of safe pregnancies and expand access to health care resources for expectant mothers. There are currently 18 states without MMRCs in place to examine and analyze the causes of pregnancy complications and help find feasible solutions.

“Maternal mortality rates have been drastically rising across the country, and we need to do more to reverse that,” said Capito. “The Maternal Health Accountability Act will help us figure out what is causing this startling trend and how we can better prevent the same situations from happening in the future. I’m glad to see the HELP Committee passed this bipartisan legislation, because we’re now one step closer to strengthening our efforts to protect these mothers.”

The U.S. has the highest number of maternal deaths of any country in the developed world; according to research done by NPR and ProPublica, 700 to 900 women die annually from pregnancy-related causes in the U.S., and around 65,000 nearly die.

“Advancement of this bill shows leadership in addressing this public health crisis. Speaking on behalf of the nation’s ob-gyns—the leading providers of health care for women—we are grateful for this important, first step in ending preventable maternal mortality,” Lisa Hollier, M.D., president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, wrote in a statement. “After more than a year of raising public awareness and advocating on the Hill, it is exciting to finally see real progress being made on important legislation that has the ability to improve the health of women in this country.”

Race is a major factor in the health outcomes of pregnant women, and the disparities between Black and white women persist across socioeconomic lines. ProPublica found that African-American women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes; a report released by the Department of Health and Human Services found that pre-eclampsia and eclampsia are 60 percent more common in African-American women and more severe. The World Health Organization estimates that Black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at the same rate as women in Mexico and Uzbekistan.

In most affluent nations, and even in many less wealthy ones, mortality rates have dropped—but in the U.S., ProPublica’s research found that an emphasis on fetal and infant safety has overshadowed the attention paid to the health of pregnant women, largely due to ignorance of the shortcomings of the medical sector in addressing a maternal health crisis putting them at risk. Medical sexism—and racism—leaves them at risk as well. Many advocates are pushing leaders in the medical community to recognize the impacts of systemic racism, and the physiological stress it fosters in the lives of Black women in the U.S., as they research the massive gaps in pre-eclampsia and hypertension rates between them and their white peers.

“The United States maternal death rate cannot go down without explicitly addressing the racial disparity by centering the voices of the women directly impacted,” Nadia Hussain, Campaign Director of Maternal Justice at MomsRising, told Ms. “Making that the center of any effort to address these issues at a legislative level, federally, on a state level, through local initiatives is a really important starting point, and another big piece is quality health care. Forty to 60 percent of maternal deaths could be avoided in this country with just better access to quality health care for women.”


Anna Lipton is a former editorial intern at Ms. and a student at Occidental College majoring in Sociology with a minor in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. She enjoys watching reality TV and eating guac, usually but not always together.