Are American Women ’50 Percent More Likely’ to Die From Pregnancy or Childbirth Than Their Mothers?

Hidden in the middle of a story about the effects of social media disinformation on a pregnant woman is a statistic that might give readers pause, but it is chilling — and accurate.

The information was part of a February 20 2020 NBC News story on “freebirth” advocacy groups:

A woman in America today is 50 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than her mother was. While many of these deaths are preventable and have more to do with access than improper medical care, the statistic itself can lead women to doubt medical institutions. Meanwhile, one-third of U.S. women give birth by C-section, a rate experts have called alarming for a procedure that can save lives but also comes with increased health risks to mothers and babies.

The passage links to a separate NBC story from October 2018 covering a widely-publicized post by Neel Shah, a Harvard University professor of gynecology and reproductive biology. Shah wrote in the Harvard Health Blog:

In 1990, about 17 maternal deaths were recorded for every 100,000 pregnant women in the United States. While relatively rare, this number has risen steadily over the last 25 years, indicating a worsening safety problem. In 2015, more than 26 deaths were recorded per 100,000 pregnant women. This means that compared with their own mothers, American women today are 50 percent more likely to die in childbirth. And the risk is consistently three to four times higher for black women than white women, irrespective of income or education.

Additionally, for every death, pregnancy-related conditions, such as high blood pressure or blood clotting disorders, result in up to 100 severe injuries. For every severe injury, tens of thousands of women suffer from inadequately treated physical or mental illnesses, as well as the broader disempowerment mothers face in the absence of paid parental leave policies and other social support.

However, Shah added that very few of these deaths occurred during the birthing process; in four out of each five cases of maternal death, the victim passed away “in the weeks and months before or after birth,” representing a failure of not just medical care, but also of social and medical support for mothers:

A few days after having a baby, American women are sent home from the hospital, infant in hand. More often than not, mother and family are left on their own until a cursory 15-minute visit with a healthcare provider several weeks later. During long gaps between checkups, mothers experience deep worry for their infants. They struggle with rapidly accelerated responsibilities, extreme sleep deprivation, and relentless pressure to return to work. And all while recovering from pregnancy and adjusting to parenthood — a transition that marks one of life’s greatest physiological endurance tests. Too often, this experience is isolating, disempowering, and mortally dangerous. And over time, these risks are getting increasingly severe.

In its February 2020 story about 28-year-old “Judith,” NBC News linked Shah’s findings to a bigger dissatisfaction concerning maternal care; a study published in the journal Reproductive Health also cited by the network found that one in six women reported mistreatment including “violations of physical privacy,” as well as physical and verbal abuse, by their providers during the pregnancy and birth process.

According to the network Judith’s own mistrust and bad medical experiences drew her to the “freebirth” community online, which advocates for women to give birth without any involvement from caregivers. Her immersion was abetted by Facebook:

There were doubts — sprouted from seeds planted by real-life friends who knew about her plan and doctors whom Judith had to see to sign up for state insurance benefits. But Judith had fortified herself against the creeping unease with the stories she read online from freebirthing mothers and the real-time support she received on Facebook. With a little help from algorithms that nudged increasingly questionable information and sources her way, Judith had become a part of the internet’s most extreme pregnancy communities.

However, Judith’s refusal to accept medical help extended into her 42nd week of pregnancy, when medical professionals recommend that prospective mothers have an induction to “jump-start” the birthing process. When she noticed complications 10 hours into her own process, though, Judith sought medical help. But it was too late to prevent her from suffering a stillbirth.

NBC reported that at least one private Facebook group advocating for freebirth, with 2,000 members, still used a photograph of Judith’s pregnant belly taken at the 42-week mark as its banner image. But she shared her experience with the network, she said, to help other women who might be taken in by those groups.

“Sad stories aren’t out there nearly as much,” Judith said. “Maybe my extreme story could help somebody.”