Maternal death rate among black women 2.5 times higher than white women, new report finds

More than 650 women died of "maternal causes" in the U.S. in 2018.

January 30, 2020, 2:12 PM

Black women in the United States die during pregnancy or in the months after giving birth 2 1/2 times more often than white women and three times more often than Hispanic women, according to new data.

The maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic black women was 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2018, according to data released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

Among all women, a total of 658 were identified as "having died of maternal causes" in the U.S. in 2018, or an estimated 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, the data found.

Some positive news surrounding those statistics is that they show the U.S. maternal mortality rate has not sharply increased. For the past several years the U.S. has had the worst maternal mortality rate among developed countries and the only one where the rate has been rising, according to a 2017 investigation by ProPublica and NPR.

A maternal death is defined as the "death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy from any cause related to the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes," according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

PHOTO: A pregnant woman in the hospital.
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Pregnancy-related deaths are defined as the death of a woman during pregnancy or within a year of the end of pregnancy from pregnancy complication, a chain of events initiated by pregnancy or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiologic effects of pregnancy. Some 65,000 women nearly die of pregnancy-related complications in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The 2018 maternal mortality data released Thursday was gathered using new coding procedures that are part of an effort to make estimates on maternal mortality more accurate.

Lawmakers and experts have been working to end the disparity that causes black women to die at a higher rate.

Two female members of the U.S. House of Representatives last year launched the first-ever Black Maternal Health Caucus to address the U.S. epidemic of black women's pregnancy-related deaths.

Black mothers with advanced professional degrees, such as a master's degree or higher, have a greater chance of infant mortality compared to white women whose highest education level is the eighth grade, according to a 2016 study by the Brookings Institution.

"As a black mother, I cannot buy or educate my way out of dying at three to four times the rate of a white mother in the United States," Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative said in testimony at the "Expecting More: Addressing America's Maternal and Infant Crisis" congressional hearing this week.

"The legacy of a hierarchy of human value based on the color of our skin continues to cause differences in health outcomes, including maternal mortality. Racism is the risk factor -- not black skin, not race," she said. "Race is a social and political construct."

PHOTO: A pregnant woman in a hospital gown
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The most common complications that women die of during and after childbirth around the world include severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy, complications from delivery and an unsafe abortion, according to WHO.

A CDC report released last year found that pregnancy-related deaths are associated with several contributing factors, including lack of access to appropriate and high-quality care, missed or delayed diagnoses and lack of knowledge among patients and providers around warning signs. The majority of the deaths, no matter when they occurred, could have been prevented by addressing the factors at multiple levels.

Angela Doyinsola Aina, co-director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), a mom-founded group that advocates for black mothers, has called maternal mortality the "low-hanging fruit" of a larger women's health crisis.

"If we did more around really promoting women’s health and investing in it from the time they are girls to old age, we will definitely help solve the maternal mortality issue," she told "Good Morning America" last year.