The good news is that the global maternal mortality rate is dropping. The bad news is that the maternal mortality rate is going up in the United States. Which makes it not only an outlier in the world at large, but also a major outlier among wealthy nations. This is honestly a little bit terrifying, and it brings up a lot of major questions about what might be causing it.
The maternal mortality rate is the number of pregnant people who die due to childbirth or pregnancy each year out of the total number of live births. It tends to be highest in developing countries; as such, it's worth noting that the United States' rate is still well below the global average. However, while the global maternal mortality rate has been declining for some time, the rate in the United States has increased over the course of the 21st century.
According to new data released this week by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, the U.S. maternal mortality rate in the year 2000 was 17 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births; however, in the year 2015, it was 25 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Although it may not seem like much, it's actually quite a dramatic increase — especially since countries with similar rates did not increase over the same period.
For instance, in Thailand, the maternal mortality rate declined from 30 to 19 between 2000 and 2015. Libya went down slightly from 24 to 23. Saudi Arabia, which, like the United States, also had a maternal mortality rate of 17 in 2000, reduced theirs to 15 by 2015.
The U.S. rate also remains much higher than most other wealthy nations. It's more than twice the rate in the UK; three times higher than the rate in Canada; four times the rate in Japan; and six times the rate in Norway.
This information comes at a time when reproductive rights have been a contentious issue in the United States. Just this year, following the implementation of a restrictive anti-abortion law that closed numerous women's health clinics in the state of Texas, analysis revealed that Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
However, the researchers believe that the biggest culprits may be a rise in complications stemming from chronic medical conditions, including diabetes.
"The really scary thing to us is all the deaths from cardiovascular disease and heart failure,” said Dr. William Callaghan, who runs the Maternal and Infant Health Branch in the Division of Reproductive Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a quarter of all deaths. There were almost none in the remote past.”
Researchers note that many of these conditions are linked to obesity, which is on the rise in the United States as well. It's also a problem that particularly affects black women, who also saw the highest increase in maternal mortality rate. However, researchers note, the maternal mortality rate for white women in the United States also went up — and also outpaces the rate in other developed nations.
It's also possible that the increase may be due to the fact that women are tending to wait longer to start having children. However, that trend is also happening in other wealthy nations whose maternal mortality rates decreased over this same period.
Whatever the reason, however, it's clear that the United States needs to start taking this issue seriously. Because the fact that this rate is climbing — and that it's so much higher than the rate in other wealthy nations — means that every year, there are pregnant people dying who don't have to. Those deaths are preventable. And they should be prevented.