Deaths related to pregnancy and childbearing have increased in the United States over the past decade, putting maternal mortality at nearly its highest rate in a quarter century, according to a new study published in the Lancet. The U.S. is one of just eight countries where maternal deaths increased between 2003 and 2013; the other nations in this dubious category include Afghanistan, El Salvador, Belize, and South Sudan.
According to the researchers, for every 100,000 births in the U.S. last year, about 18.5 women died. That doesn’t stack up very well with the mortality rates in other nations. A woman giving birth in America is more than twice as likely to die as a woman in Saudi Arabia or China, and three times as likely to die as a woman in the United Kingdom.
It’s also evidence that this issue is getting worse. Back in 1990, the United States’ maternal mortality rate was 12.4 women per 100,000 births. In 2003, it was 17.6.
The Lancet study is just the latest data point in a mounting pile of research about this country’s maternal mortality problem. Despite the fact that giving birth in the U.S. costs more than anywhere else in the world, that’s not guaranteeing a better quality of care for women in this country — particularly for women of color. African American mothers are more than three times as likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth than their white counterparts.
Last year, the pharmaceutical company Merck brought its maternal health program, which was initially developed to help save women’s lives in impoverished nations, here to the United States. At the time, the company’s chief executive explained that Merck was turning its attention to the U.S. because this country’s rising maternal mortality rate is “appalling” and “something we ought to be ashamed of.”
It’s not entirely clear why the United States is lagging so far behind, but researchers agree it probably reflects a lack of access to health care and a high rate of unplanned pregnancies. Many women are dying from chronic health issues that are exacerbated by their pregnancies because they didn’t receive adequate care to manage their conditions beforehand. Other women lack the resources to prevent pregnancy if they’re not financially stable enough to have a child. And many expectant mothers struggle to get the prenatal care they need during their pregnancies.
This has an effect on children as well as mothers. The U.S. has the highest rate of first-day infant mortality of any country in the developed world. And the rate of death for children under the age of five is 7.1 per 1,000 live births — roughly on par with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Qatar, and Uruguay.
According to Save The Children, which releases rankings on the best countries for mothers every year, the United States continues to slip in this area. Although the U.S. used to be among the top 10 countries on the organization’s list, it slipped down to 31st place this year. “Evidence shows that the health of American mothers and children is falling behind. The United States is among the countries that has made the least progress since 2000 on maternal and child survival,” the report authors explain.