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Maternal Mortality: Why Does it Still Happen?

Maternal mortality – a death associated with pregnancy or childbirth – is a tragedy that still occurs daily in the United States despite medical advances. The U.S. is one of the most advanced countries in the world, yet hundreds of preventable maternal deaths still take place each year. If medical malpractice is a cause of maternal death, the victim’s surviving family members may be able to file a wrongful death claim in Philadelphia.

What Is Maternal Mortality?

Maternal mortality refers to a pregnancy or childbirth-related death of a woman. It is a death that can occur while a woman is pregnant, during a complicated childbirth or even up to a year after the woman gives birth. Maternal morbidity describes any health problem that results from being pregnant or giving birth (short-term or long-term), while maternal mortality refers to an obstetric cause of death.

What Are the Main Causes of Maternal Death During Childbirth?

The World Health Organization reports that between 2000 and 2017, the maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 100,000 live births) dropped by 38 percent worldwide. Despite the global rate of maternal mortality decreasing, the rate in the U.S. has increased in recent years. In 2020, 861 women in the U.S. died of maternal causes, according to the National Center for Health Statistics – an increase from 754 maternal deaths in 2019.

Some of the causes listed for maternal deaths are:

  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Infections
  • High blood pressure (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia)
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Delivery complications
  • Chronic conditions, such as diabetes
  • Unsafe abortion

Health problems and complications can arise at any stage of a woman’s pregnancy, at delivery, and in the weeks and months following delivery. Identifying potential maternal risks ahead of time can help a doctor or OB-GYN take proactive steps to protect the safety of the mother. Ensuring access to quality prenatal and postnatal care can also decrease the risk of maternal mortality.

Who Is Most At Risk?

Black women, women in low-resource settings and older women are most at risk of maternal mortality. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was almost three times as high as the rate for White women (55.3 deaths vs. 19.1 per 100,000 live births). The maternal mortality rates for Black women were also significantly higher than for Hispanic women.

The vast majority of maternal deaths on a global scale occur in low-resource settings. WHO data shows that 94 percent of maternal deaths take place in low and lower-middle income countries, and most are preventable. Of the 295,000 estimated women who died during pregnancy and childbirth in 2017, 86 percent (254,000) occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.

The rate of maternal mortality also increases with the age of the mother. In 2020, the rate was 13.8 deaths per 100,000 live births for women under the age of 25. The maternal mortality rate increases exponentially with age, to 22.8 between 25 and 39 and 107.9 for women 40 and above. The rate of maternal mortality for women ages 40 and over was 7.8 times higher than for women under the age of 25.

Maternal Mortality and Medical Negligence

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 60 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. Maternal deaths often stem from medical malpractice or negligence, meaning the failure of a health care provider to adhere to the accepted standards of patient care. If medical negligence causes a birth injury or maternal death, the medical provider can be held liable.

Potential causes of maternal death include an unsanitary labor and delivery setting, an unqualified or inexperienced doctor, improper use of birth-assistive tools, the failure to monitor vital signs, and the failure to identify and respond to mortality risk factors. If the death of a mother reasonably could have been prevented with proper medical care, her family may be able to file a claim to pursue justice and recover financial compensation for the harm caused by the death.