The maternal mortality crisis persists

Headlines trumpet a global decline, but the rate is still critical -- and on the rise in the U.S

Published April 14, 2010 7:10PM (EDT)

A new study has some double-take-inducing news to report: Globally, maternal deaths are in dramatic decline. There has been a 35 percent decrease in the number of women who die worldwide during pregnancy, childbirth or shortly thereafter: The rate dropped from 526,300 in 1980 to 342,900 in 2008. Considering that reducing maternal mortality has been a key aim of women's health advocates, and one that has long seemed a losing battle, it's a rather shocking discovery.

That's not to mention that just last month Amnesty International reported that over the past two decades maternal deaths had doubled in the United States. While there was some disagreement at the time over whether such a crisis exists in the states, this new report also documents an increase, albeit a smaller one. So, how could it be that more and more women are dying during childbirth in a developed country like the U.S. as the maternal mortality rate takes a dive in the world at large? Rachel Ward, co-author of Amnesty's "Deadly Delivery" report, told Broadsheet that it's a result of the U.S. government "ignoring the barriers and obstacles to maternal healthcare" for decades.

She cited the 33 million women of reproductive age in this country with no health insurance and explained that many start their pregnancy in poor health, she says. Women face critical delays in receiving prenatal care (especially for unplanned pregnancies, which account for half of U.S. births) and they are often provided with inadequate postpartum care. "We know how to prevent these death," Ward said matter-of-factly. "We aren't waiting for a medical breakthrough to save women's lives." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 percent of these deaths could be prevented.

Dr. Ana Langer, president of EngenderHealth, an international reproductive healthcare organization, said that better record keeping might account for some of the increase in the U.S. The window for classifying maternal mortality has been extended from 42 days after a woman gives birth to one year. Also, in recent years, U.S. death certificates began tracking whether or not a woman of reproductive age is pregnant at the time of death. As for global changes, Langer points to an increase in contraceptive use, women's education and the use of skilled medical providers during birth. However, she was quick to point out that it's somewhat deceptive to say that maternal mortality is declining worldwide. The reality is that it's "declining in some countries with large populations."

Ward added that Amnesty is "pleased to see the progress that is being made worldwide." That said, she calls for a bit of perspective: Previously, the maternal mortality rate translated to one woman dying every minute; these new figures suggest that a woman is dying every minute and a half. It's an improvement, she says, but "there is still a maternal healthcare crisis."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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