U.S. maternal mortality rates are the highest in the wealthy world, and are rapidly rising. A person giving birth in the U.S. today is 50% more likely to die than her mother a generation ago. The U.S. is the only developed nation that has seen an increase in maternal mortality over the last decade. The overwhelming majority of maternal deaths are preventable, and due to failures of providers or healthcare systems—not lifestyle choices or the health shortcomings of individuals. Research consistently identifies strategies that can save lives. Healthcare systems know how to lower maternal mortality. They’re not doing it. This points to a system that is failing pregnant people by choice, and often for profit. And as the maternal death rate rises, so too does anti-abortion fervor on the right.
The Link Between Abortion Bans and High Maternal Mortality
Abortion bans frequently offer an exception when the life of the mother is in danger. Yet when perfectly healthy pregnant people die from preventable causes, every pregnancy is a life-threatening condition. Georgia and Alabama have some of the worst maternal mortality rates in a nation where maternal mortality has already reached a crisis point.
It is safer to give birth in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and nearly 100 other countries than it is to give birth in Georgia.
Legislators in Georgia and Alabama could have enacted legislation to curb maternal mortality. They could have expanded Medicaid access, demanded more accountability from doctors and hospitals, improved outreach programs, licensed more midwives, or done dozens of other things linked to better maternal health outcomes. Instead they banned abortion, putting the life of every pregnant person in danger.
The culture of anti-choice activism has never been about protecting life, as evidenced by Republicans’ refusal to endorse any policy that could lower the abortion rate, and their unwillingness to do anything to help living children or families. Empirical data and the experience of other nations have also shown that banning abortion elevates maternal mortality. Banning abortion doesn’t end it. It just drives it underground. In Latin America, where abortion is illegal, the abortion rate is more than triple the U.S. rate. Illegal abortions kill thousands of women every year. More than half of abortions worldwide are unsafe.
A Culture of Controlling and Ignoring Women
Analyses consistently show that states with high maternal mortality are also those that do the most to restrict women’s bodily autonomy. If you dig deeper into the data, it becomes clear that this is because these states have a culture of controlling and ignoring women—and that culture contributes to the deaths of pregnant people.
The anecdotes are appalling: Kyra Johnson was left to bleed to death internally, while she and her husband begged for her life. Doctors ignored her distress and told her she was “not a priority.” Lashonda Hazard did everything she could to get help. Providers ignored her and sent her home. Both she and her baby died. Angela Carder was forced by a court to undergo a life-threatening C-section she did not want. It killed both her and her baby.
When doctors ignore and dismiss pregnant people, they die. And we have a culture of ignoring and dismissing people when they give birth. At some healthcare facilities, birth is little more than an assembly line undertaking, where the goal is to get a person in the door, make as much money as possible, and then discharge them without regard for the effect of the experience on their physical or mental health. Consider the following:
When healthcare providers are hostile to or dismissive of birthing people, deaths are inevitable. When birthing people can’t trust a healthcare system to treat them as more than sources of profit, outcomes are terrible.
In both a for-profit healthcare system and an anti-choice culture, women are means to ends—not people who matter.
When the Fetus Counts But the Mother Doesn’t
On television and in movies, the most dangerous part of pregnancy is birth. That’s why many of us believe it’s so important to carefully monitor pregnant people and heavily manage their births. So you might be surprised to learn that the most dangerous time for a new parent is actually the postpartum period. More than half of maternal deaths occur in the 43 days following birth. This is also the time when women are least likely to see a healthcare provider. In the weeks leading up to birth, a pregnant person may see a provider weekly, or even more. As soon as the baby is out, they see no one.
What message does this send about the value of a birthing person? The message is clear: a fetus matters, but the person who grew it does not. It’s the natural extension of an anti-choice culture that treats pregnant people as vessels.
Maternal mortality is not inevitable. Nations such as Finland have reduced their maternal mortality rate to 3 per 100,000. That’s half the death rate associated with routine dental procedures, suggesting that in European nations, you’re more likely to die from a tooth extraction than from giving birth.
The behavior of states with the highest maternal mortality rate has clarified how little we value women. High maternal mortality is a choice, not an inevitable tragedy.
Note: Abortion is legal—for now—in the states that have acted to ban it. In Georgia, HB481 does not go into effect until 2020, and will likely be stayed before then. These bans are not about immediately prohibiting abortion. Instead, the goal is to get abortion before the Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse Roe vs. Wade. If you need an abortion, you can still get one. Find an abortion clinic in your state here. Or help fund an abortion for a woman in need by donating to the National Network of Abortion Funds.