America’s Maternal Death Rate Hits Highest Level Since 1965

Following reports that the U.S. life expectancy has ticked down in recent years, the National Center for Health Statistics recently highlighted another troubling trend.

In a report released on Thursday, the agency advised that the percentage of mothers who died either during or shortly after giving birth last year nationwide in 2021 the highest it had been since 1965.

The 1,205 maternal deaths — or nearly 33 per 100,000 live births — was a staggering 40% higher than just the previous year.

While, as with the aforementioned decline in life expectancy, COVID-19 clearly played a part in the spike, experts say there are other factors at play. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common causes of maternal death are hemorrhaging, infection, and heart-related issues.

About 42% of American adults are considered obese, which can contribute to serious medical issues.

Pregnant mothers who contracted COVID-19 early on in the pandemic were reportedly more likely to experience early labor or otherwise face serious illness.

As March of Dimes President Stacey D. Stewart explained earlier this year: “It’s hard for us to speculate, but we did suspect that the pandemic would have an unfortunate effect on maternal mortality.”

The trend did not impact all pregnant women equally, according to the statistics. The maternal death rate among Black women was nearly 70 per 100,000 live births — well over twice the rate of White mothers.

It is unclear whether biological or environmental factors are to blame for that disparity, but Ochsner Health obstetrician Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell speculated that there are “social factors that either are barriers to accessing care or that make your medical conditions worse coming into the pregnancy.”

Hispanic mothers and women over 40 regardless of race also experienced a higher-than-average rate of maternal death.

The trend began before the pandemic — and compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. rate looks particularly bad. Countries including Japan, Israel, Australia, and Spain had a maternal death rate of between 2 to 3 per 100,000 live births in 2020.

Even as the rate declined across most Western nations between 2000 and 2020, it increased by 78% in the United States.

As University of Southern California gerontology professor Eileen Crimmins concluded: “There is just no reason for a rich country to have poor maternal mortality.”

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