Black Women Continue to Suffer High Rates of Pregnancy-Related Deaths
Black, Native American and Alaska Native women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts, according to a sobering study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Maternal deaths claim about 700 lives each year in the United States, and can occur during pregnancy, at delivery, and up to a year following childbirth, the CDC’s analysis found.
The alarming statistics laid bare by the report are even more tragic given the CDC researchers’ conclusion that most maternal deaths were preventable.
That women of color are statistically more likely to suffer pregnancy-related health consequences has been known for years, but only until recently has the disparity entered mainstream consciousness.
The troubling trend received increased scrutiny last year, when tennis superstar Serena Williams went public with her own near-death experience while giving birth.
“Every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. And you can help make this a reality,” Williams wrote in CNN, calling for governments and other institutions to “do more” to save the lives of mothers and their newborns.
Maternal Mortality on the Rise in the United States
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), more women died in the United States from pregnancy-related health effects than any other developed country.
“The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a rising maternal mortality rate, and between 2000 and 2014, there was a 26% increase in the maternal mortality rate,” the organization noted.
The rise in maternal deaths in America is even more striking when compared to data from the 1990s. According to the World Health Organization, the ratio of fatalities doubled between 1990 and 2013.
CDC researchers analyzed data from 2011 to 2015, and concluded that pregnancy-related deaths was 17.2 per 100,000 live births. Black women accounted for the highest rate, at 42.8, according to researchers, followed by Native American and Alaska Native women, at 32.5 percent.
Among the findings:
- 31 percent of deaths occurred during pregnancy
- 16.9 percent happened on day of delivery
- 18.6 percent, one to six days postpartum; 21.4 percent, seven to 42 days postpartum; and 11.7 percent, between 43 and 365 days postpartum
Researchers attributed the majority of fatalities to cardiovascular conditions, infection, and hemorrhage. Separately, a national study conducted more than a decade ago examining five specific conditions, found that black women had a two-to-three times higher chance of dying than white women inflicted with the same maladies.
Tragically, the CDC report concluded that more than half of the recorded deaths between 2011 and 2015 could’ve been avoided.
Maternal Mortality Racial Disparity Continues
The nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families issued its own report in April 2018 outlining the continued racial disparity. It placed much of the blame on societal racism and sexism, pointing to an unequal pay gap and its collateral consequences.
“These lost wages mean Black women and their families have less money to support themselves and their families, and may have to choose between essential resources like housing, child care, food and health care,” the organization said.
Compared to white women, the organization noted, black women are less likely to have health insurance and access to prenatal care.
“Only 87 percent of Black women of reproductive age have health insurance, and many more experience gaps in coverage during their lives,” the report stated. “To improve Black women’s health outcomes, policies should focus on expanding and maintaining access to care and coverage.”
As far as solutions go, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic presidential candidate, introduced a bill last year intending to reduce the racial disparities in the system through the establishment of a multi-faceted grant program.
The bill received 18 co-sponsors, including three other senators vying for the Democratic nomination: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, a registered independent who caucuses with Democrats.
In April, advocacy groups led by Black Mamas Matter Alliance hosted a week’s worth of events to raise awareness around maternal health care for black women.
The push to educate the broader public and lawmakers alike comes as maternal deaths in the United States, overall, remain stubbornly high, despite the country’s vast wealth.
The Common Wealth Fund found that the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths compared to the world’s wealthiest nations, followed by New Zealand and the UK.
Now the hope is to turn awareness into prevention — which CDC researches say is possible.
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