As if rearing children isn’t challenging enough, more studies are showing that childbirth is potentially dangerous for African American women.
Each year in the United States, about 700 to 1,200 women die from pregnancy or childbirth complications. SisterSong, an organization focusing on reproductive justice, reports that Black women are about three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than White women of the same age group.
Women in the United States are more likely to die from childbirth- or pregnancy-related causes than other women in the developed world, and half of those deaths may be preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC’s pregnancy mortality surveillance system was implemented in 1986 to track maternal deaths. Since then, the number of reported pregnancy-related deaths nationwide steadily increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 17.8 per 100,000 in 2009 and 2011.
While poor women are at greater risk of dying than women who have higher incomes, the disparity between black and white women is consistent at all income levels. Groups including Amnesty International and SisterSong have called out this alarming racial disparity, yet unanswered challenges remain.
In 2014, SisterSong along with the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health released a report for the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called “Reproductive Injustice: Racial and Gender Injustice in U.S. Health Care.” The report noted that “in some areas of Mississippi, the rate of maternal death for women of color exceeds that of Sub-Saharan Africa, while the number of white women who die in childbirth is too insignificant to report.”
Every day, more than 800 women around the world die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. That’s more than 300,000 girls and women each year. Between 6 and 9 million more experience serious complications, many of which have lifelong consequences. As NPR recently reported, in the U.S., Black expectant mothers are 243 percent more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women. Black women are also 49 percent more likely to deliver prematurely than white women, while black babies are twice as likely to die before reaching their first birthday.
There is also a surprising maternity care provider shortage nationwide. In the United States, nearly 66 million people live in areas where there is a shortage of health care providers. Nearly half the counties in the U.S. do not have a single obstetrician providing maternity care. For women living in a rural part of a state like Montana, they may have to drive as far as five hours round-trip to receive prenatal care or to give birth in a hospital.
Childbirth can become more dangerous when a woman is not healthy before she becomes pregnant; a growing body of research suggests that poor health prior to pregnancy could be a contributing factor to the high U.S. death toll. Many studies have indicated that an increasing number of pregnant women in the U.S. have health conditions that could boost the risk of problematic complications including chronic health disease, hypertension and diabetes. More than half of the women in the U.S. who become pregnant are above a healthy weight. Women who are 35 or older are also at increased risk of complications during pregnancy. Poor prenatal care and barriers to accessing health care could be killing more women, too.
Doctors say that more interventions are needed to keep women healthier before they get pregnant, combined with better care during and after pregnancy and better tracking of maternal deaths. These can be essential tools in the fight to save women from these preventable deaths.