maternal mortality

It’s 2017. Why Are American Women Worried About Dying in Childbirth?

hospital bed

The most viral story on my feed this past Mother’s Day weekend was N.P.R and ProPublica’s longform collaboration, kicking off a series about maternal mortality. This piece focused on the utterly tragic postpartum death of Lauren Bloomstein, who suffered from a common, dangerous condition after delivering her child. The article’s thesis is that America’s dismal maternal mortality rate is partly a function of an aggressive focus on infants and their safety, as well as a disregard for women’s pain, leaving moms “in danger.”

Bloomstein’s story will break your heart (don’t look at the picture of her with her daughter if you don’t want to cry). But then again, so will this story about a woman who died after childbirth in NYC,  this one about a woman who died in childbirth in Colorado, and this one about a Brooklyn mom.

It’s hard to know what to say about this issue, because the feelings it brings to the surface are so intense, and so personal. Frankly, since I read the story this weekend and looked at some of these other cases, I’ve been carrying a knot inside me. I’m so sad for the families who have lost women to childbirth—the stunned husbands and bereft kids.

And to be honest, I’ve also become much more scared about having a second child than I was—because now I am a mom, and if something happened to me in childbirth or pregnancy, my living son, who depends on me so much, would suffer. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way—my online communities are full of moms admitting their very understandable fears triggered by the issues brought to the surface in this piece.

But let’s back up for a moment, shall we?

It’s 2017. Why are women scared to give birth? Well, as the NPR/ProPublica report notes, that’s because the United States medical establishment sucks at keeping women alive during the process.

“American women are more than three times as likely as Canadian women to die in the maternal period (defined by the Centers for Disease Control as the start of pregnancy to one year after delivery or termination), six times as likely to die as Scandinavians. In every other wealthy country, and many less affluent ones, maternal mortality rates have been falling; in Great Britain, the journal Lancet recently noted, the rate has declined so dramatically that “a man is more likely to die while his partner is pregnant than she is.” But in the U.S., maternal deaths increased from 2000 to 2014. In a recent analysis by the CDC Foundation, nearly 60 percent of such deaths were preventable.”

As devastating as Bloomstein’s death and other cases are, one of the things that the NPR story only touches on and will presumably be addressed in a follow-up is that there’s a particular racial disparity that contributes to these abysmal numbers: black women are dying disproportionately.

Bias in the medical community, structural issues like poverty and incarceration, and the stress of racism all contribute–and the problem is a long way from being addressed. All the way back in 2013, a piece in reproductive health publication Rewire asked why people didn’t care that black women were dying in childbirth.

“In the United States, a nation that spends more on health care than its industrialized peers, Black women die from pregnancy-related causes at rates three to four times higher than their white counterparts. Though they generally have less access to prenatal care and health insurance, Black women also have more frequent and longer antenatal hospital stays. They are more likely to experience pregnancy loss or complications when compared with whites and Hispanics.

Safe motherhood is clearly elusive for U.S. Black women who, by virtue of their residence in the world’s most developed country, have access to more medical advances than women in Bolivia or Zambia. As Amnesty International pointed out in its 2010 report Deadly Delivery, Black women’s maternal death rate has been shockingly high for decades, with few voices outside public health communities calling for action. What will it take to get people to recognize not just the racial disparity in death rates but the disparity in concern over U.S. Black women’s health and lives?”

Four years later, there have been more articles and more investigations, but little in the way of change.

So this is why so many of us are scared. We’re living in a country that values the lives of women, and mothers—especially women of color, but all women—cheaply.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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