Misleading Evidence: Why Maternal Mortality Rates in the U.S. Are Not Plummeting

07/07/2014 11:35 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014

Last week, a blog post caught our eye called Evidence of Abundance #2. Normally, this kind of article would have been right up our alley. We believe in focusing on the good things that are present in our lives, and we're grateful for all the ways abundance shows up in ours. The subtitle for this blog was this: Infant and Maternal Mortality. Now we were really intrigued.

When we read the blog itself though, we were confused. The writer posits that 100 years ago, mothers routinely died in childbirth. That's true, it was very common. He says now that we have modern technology and modern medicine, mothers should expect to give birth and live -- also true. But then he posts a graph to demonstrate that maternal mortality rates have plummeted, and this is the part that we found misleading. His graph stops with data collected in 1996 -- almost 20 years ago. The problem is, over the last 20 years, maternal mortality in the United States has been on the rise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the maternal mortality rate in the United States in 1915 was approximately 608 deaths per 100,000 live births. In 1996 (where the graph mentioned above stops), it was 8.5 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. This is a significant decrease in maternal deaths for which we are all abundantly grateful.

The problem is, every year after 1996, our maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has risen. In 2003, it was up to 12.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. And in 2013, according to a report released last month in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. was estimated at 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births. That places the U.S. among only eight countries in the world whose maternal death rates are rising. The Lancet also suggests that 18.5 is a low estimate and they think the number might actually be larger. According to data collected by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNFPA, The World Bank and the United Nations Population Division, the number is closer to 28 deaths per 100,000.

In fact, we're currently ranked 60th in the world in terms of maternal mortality. That's a big drop from our previous poor ranking of 50th. That means that 59 other countries do a better job than we do in the U.S. at keeping their mothers alive and well. More than twice and three times as many mothers die now as did in 1996. Currently, about 800 women in the United States and 287,000 women globally die every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. That's one woman dying every two minutes from complications we know how to prevent.

Up to 98 percent of maternal deaths are entirely preventable when women have access to the right kind of health care. Unfortunately, too many women lack access to affordable care or receive the wrong kind of health care for their needs. Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, where there aren't enough health care providers or facilities available. In the U.S., there are plenty of health care providers and facilities to go around, but not enough women can afford them. Or, they receive too much of the wrong kind of prenatal and antenatal care and suffer complications from over-intervention. Here in the U.S., where we spend more on health care than in all other countries, we should be able to guarantee the safety of every mother.

While we're grateful to live in times where modern medicine and technology can save the lives of almost every mother, we have to ask these vital questions: Why aren't we saving them? Why, in 2014, do hundreds of thousands of women still die needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth? We know how to save them. We're just not making the lives of mothers and women a priority.

There is indeed evidence of abundance all around us, and the sentiment posed in the blog with this title was sincere and heartfelt. Unfortunately, it was also misleading because the truth is, maternal mortality rates are not plummeting anymore. Instead, here in the U.S., they're rising due to an abundance of women receiving poor health care, the wrong kind of health care or no health care at all. The evidence speaks for itself.

Every Mother Counts is a nonprofit organization working to reduce the number of women who die due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth. We do that by raising awareness and educating audiences about the fact that even in the 21st century, these deaths still take place and that up to 98 percent of them are preventable.