Deaths during childbirth have declined sharply in most parts of the world — but not in the United States. Maternal mortality doubled in this country between 2000 and 2014, and it disproportionately affects African-American women, placing them at three to four times greater risk.
A panel at the Harvard T.H. Chan School on Monday offered some alarming statistics, but also a number of solutions, ranging from improving hospital facilities to addressing systemic racism. The panel, “Deaths from Pregnancy and Childbirth: Why Are More U.S. Mothers Dying and What Can Be Done,” was moderated by WGBH news anchor Tina Martin, and streamed live on YouTube and Facebook.
An introductory video produced by ProPublica and NPR stated that between 700 and 900 women died from pregnancy-related causes in the U.S. in 2016, and up to 60 percent of those deaths were preventable. There has been no improvement in the three years since, said Wanda Barfield, a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service and the director of reproductive health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This really is a cause for concern,” she said, “and another major one is the evident racial disparities that we’re seeing. For more than 30 years we’ve seen a disproportionate burden of death in African-American women. … This is really an unconscionable issue.”
Because so many of these deaths were preventable, she said there is “a lot of room for opportunities for intervention.” While structural racism and unconscious bias are underlying conditions, another is the variations in hospital quality in different communities. Barfield recommended developing standardized care for mothers, both during childbirth and in the months afterward.
“These deaths don’t happen randomly,” concurred Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at the Chan School. She cited a number of studies by human-rights groups, including a 2011 investigation by Amnesty International that showed the inequality of health risks. “The drivers include lack of access, poorer quality [health care], and the basic societal undervaluing of women of color.”