Merck & Co., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, has invested $500 million in a 10-year program to end maternal mortality in developing nations. Launched in 2011, “Merck for Mothers” initially focused on countries like India, Uganda, and Zambia, where women often die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth because they lack access to modern medical care.
This week, the company is announcing an expansion of the program to tackle another area with stubbornly high rates of maternal deaths: the United States of America.
Giving birth in the U.S. costs more than anywhere else in the world. But that hasn’t done anything to guarantee that every woman has access to the best possible medical care during pregnancy and birth. In fact, the U.S. has the highest first-day infant death rate of any industrial nation, and it lags far behind other wealthy nations in other indicators of maternal health, too.
Shockingly, this issue is getting worse, not better. Although efforts like “Merck for Mothers” have helped lower the global maternal mortality rate as a whole, the number of women dying from childbirth in this country has doubled over the past 25 years. There are stark racial disparities, too: The maternal mortality rate among African American women is more than triple the rate among their white counterparts.
That’s why Merck is now turning its attention to the United States. The company’s chief executive, Kenneth Frazier, notes that the nation’s rising maternal mortality rates are “appalling” and “something we ought to be ashamed of.” In a press release announcing the new U.S.-focused initiative, Frazier explains that “Merck is working with partners around the globe to help improve the situation everywhere, including in the United States, to create a world where no woman dies while giving life.”
“Merck for Mothers” will work with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to develop and implement standard protocols for treating the most common causes of maternal death, like severe bleeding and blood clots. The initiative will also make grants to state-based programs that are working to improve maternal health — for instance, community clinics that help provide prenatal care to low-income communities or women with chronic health conditions.
Medical professionals agree that the lack of access to preventative and primary care services is one of the primary reasons that the U.S. still faces such high death rates in this area. Women need family planning resources that allow them to safely space their pregnancies, because the key to encouraging healthy pregnancies is ensuring that every pregnancy is wanted. If a woman accidentally gets pregnant, she’s less likely to realize it right away, and therefore less likely to actively seek out prenatal care. To make matters worse, the woman who need this type of treatment can’t always afford it. Last year, nearly 13 million women of reproductive age didn’t have insurance, and many of those who were insured still didn’t have maternity coverage.
Obamacare takes some important steps to address these barriers. The health reform law expands low-income women’s access to affordable insurance options, allows millions of women to have contraceptive coverage free of charge, and requires all of the plans offered on the individual market to cover maternity care.
But on a state level, Republican lawmakers are actively undermining efforts to safeguard maternal health. By targeting publicly-funded family planning clinics and stripping taxpayer dollars from Planned Parenthood affiliates, supposedly pro-life politicians have chipped away at women’s access to the same health care services that could keep them and their babies healthy.