01/27/2011 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Surprisingly High Rate of Maternal Deaths in America

Whenever I read about "maternal mortality rates," I wince. How about the truth for a change? Mother death rate per newborns? Percentage of moms dead at birth of new babies? Number of orphans created at birth?

Here in America, 17 pregnant women die for every 100,000 births. In Australia and Sweden, by contrast, there are only five maternal deaths for every 100,000 births. The figure is six in Ireland, seven in Germany and Canada, and eight in Norway, according to a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet.

To be competitive about life-saving, in Slovakia the rate is six maternal deaths per 100,000 childbirths. Slovakia spends $565.00 per capita on health care; Americans spend over $6,000.00 per person on health, as reported in "The Value of Nothing" by Raj Patel.

For minority populations, Patel reports, the numbers are getting worse, not better. "If the African American population rate in the United States were a separate country, [it] would be ranked below Uzbekistan, which has a maternal mortality rate of 24 per 100,000, and where the average income per person is $840.00 per year."

But there is some good news to celebrate. "The number of women dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth has decreased by 34 percent from an estimated 546,000 in 1990 to 358,000 in 2008," according the World Health Organization. Not good enough, but let's be happy for the 188,000 female lives saved.

"Every day, about 1000 women died due to these complications in 2008. Out of the 1,000, 570 lived in sub-Saharan Africa, 300 in South Asia and five in high-income countries. The risk of a woman in a developing country dying from a pregnancy-related cause during her lifetime is about 36 times higher compared to a woman living in a developed country," the report adds.

In the United Kingdom (with its single payer, universal, socialized health care system), the rate is eight women per 100,000 births. Some politicians believe that America has the best health care system in the world. Is that true?

As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn point out in "Half the Sky," "the issue is almost never covered [in the media]" even though the maternal death rate equals about two jumbo jets crashing each day, all passengers and crew killed. Because the numbers are reported to him with greater frequency and immediacy, in my opinion Speaker Boehner would probably know more about his own golf score than the health score of his Ohio constituents.

I wonder if the Speaker has ever played at one of Italy's centuries-old golf courses. If so, he might learn that Italy is the safest place in the world to give birth. Only one woman in 100,000 dies in childbirth. For pregnant women, Italy -- a single-payer, nationalized, universal health care system -- is indeed "la dolce vita."