For years, the United States has overlooked and under-prioritized the pressing national crisis presented by the exorbitant maternal mortality rate. What is the role of the Church and our society in alleviating this crisis and creating a civilization of love in which every woman can have a safe and dignified pregnancy, birth, and maternity?
The Latest Report on Maternal Mortality
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a report summarizing the key findings of a study of pregnancy-related deaths, based on 2017 – 2019 data from 36 U.S. states.
According to the report, 4 in 5 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable.
In this study, a “pregnancy-related death” refers to a death during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy that results from a pregnancy complication, the chain of events initiated by pregnancy, or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiologic effects of pregnancy. Likewise, the study defined “preventability” as a death in which there was at least some chance of the death being averted by one or more reasonable changes to patient, community, provider, facility, and/or system factors.
Leading Causes of Pregnancy-Related Deaths
The study concluded that mental health conditions – including deaths linked to suicides and substance use disorders – were the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths among pregnant women and new mothers (23%). Hemorrhaging (14%) and heart conditions (13%) followed closely behind. Infections, thrombotic embolisms and heart diseases and disorders, such as cardiomyopathy and hypertension, also made the list.
It is worth noting that the leading cause of pregnancy-related death varied by race and ethnicity. Heart conditions were the most common cause of death in Black women, mental health conditions for Hispanic women, and hemorrhaging for Asian women.
While this study focused on data available in the years prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent reports suggest that maternal mortality rates have continued to climb since the pandemic’s beginning in 2020. This is attributed to the additional challenges the pandemic presented for access to health care.
The White House Response
In response to worsening maternal health outcomes, in June 2022 the White House launched a whole-of-government Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis. The plan has five key goals aimed at improving maternal health outcomes in the United States:
1. Increasing access to and coverage of comprehensive high-quality maternal health services.
2. Ensuring that women giving birth are heard and are decision-makers in accountable systems of care.
3. Advancing data collection, standardization, harmonization, transparency, and research.
4. Expanding and diversifying the perinatal workforce.
5. Strengthening economic and social support for women before, during, and after pregnancy.
As Vice President Kamala Harris stated in the letter introducing the White House’s action plan, the climbing pregnancy-related death rate suggests that, “far too many women experience pain, neglect, and loss during what should be one of the most joyous times of their lives.”
There is a pressing need for quality improvement initiatives not only at the federal level, but also across states, in hospitals, and within communities to ensure that pregnant women and new mothers are provided with the right care at the right time.
We Need to Build a Civilization of Love
The White House blueprint emphasizes that while the factors driving our maternal health crisis are undoubtedly complex and income is not always a protective factor, “it is much harder for pregnant women to stay healthy when they are hungry, experience violence, are without housing, feel unsafe, lack child care, lack parental leave, and/or lack a steady paycheck.”
This crisis cannot be solved by the healthcare system alone. We must also take into account the social and cultural factors related to pregnancy in the United States.
We must acknowledge that this work belongs to all of us as a society, and we must make an effort to understand the circumstances that contribute to every pregnancy-related death in order to redefine the ways in which we support new mothers.
In her mission to uphold the dignity, role and rights of women, the Church is poised to lead the cultural revolution needed to address our maternal health crisis. She must serve as a uniting force in assessing and tackling the structural and cultural forces affecting pregnant women and new mothers that will help us make headway in the fight against maternal mortality.
If we start by actively fighting against maternal mistreatment, bolstering the voice of women – especially those from communities of color – and advocating for culturally appropriate, respectful, and accountable medical care to pregnant mothers, we can begin to redesign the culture, systems, and processes that are currently failing new mothers.
We need to build a society in which every woman can have a safe and dignified pregnancy, birth, and maternity. In short, we need to build a civilization of love.