By Rachel Ward, Managing Director, Research Unit
News coverage of the study published in The Lancet about declining maternal deaths worldwide largely ignored the appalling fact that the United States has shown no improvement in the rate of maternal deaths for two decades.
Progress in reducing maternal deaths around the world should be applauded.
Yet even if we accept the study’s conclusion that there has been some progress on reversing maternal deaths worldwide, this should not lead us to the wrong conclusion — that the problem is solved.
Far from it.
Women are still dying worldwide at an appalling rate — a woman dies every minute and a half worldwide, according to the figures published in The Lancet.
Most of these deaths, we know, can be prevented. This study should strengthen our resolve to develop strategies to expand upon the progress so that the right to safe childbirth is protected for all women everywhere.
In the United States, the Lancet study shows that maternal deaths are on the rise. The recent Amnesty International study we co-authored, Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, shows that the maternal death rate has shown no improvement in the United States in more than two decades, and in fact, the death rate is going up. This is a disgrace. And the rate is climbing, despite the fact that hospitalization related to pregnancy and childbirth costs some $86 billion a year — the highest hospitalization costs of any area of medicine.
Two to three women die every day in the United States during or after childbirth. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that half of these deaths can be prevented. While some of the increase may be attributable to improved data collection the fact that American women have a greater lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications than women in 40 other countries (including virtually all of the industrialized ones) is a huge cause for concern.
As troublesome, pregnancy-related complications that nearly cause deaths — known as “near misses” — are rising at an alarming rate in the United States. More than 34,000 women nearly die each year. Overall, more than one-third of all women (1.7 million) who give birth in the United States experience some type of complication that has an adverse effect on their health. This situation is far worse for women of color, Native Americans, immigrants, women living in poverty and those who speak little or no English. These women suffer from systemic inequalities and discrimination that result in dangerous barriers to care that can lead to increased complications and even death. For example, black women are nearly four times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women are.
The United States government has an obligation to address the disparities and make sure all women have access to good care. Currently, there is no robust or systematic government response to this critical problem. Amnesty International is urging the government to set up a single office for maternal health care within the Department of Health and Human Services to help ensure that all women have access to timely and adequate maternal care.
Amnesty International is campaigning to propel government action. Please take action by visiting: www.amnestyusa.org/deadlydelivery