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What is maternal mortality?

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August 10, 2022

The United States is a technologically advanced country with trusted science and medicine. And many of us assume most individuals in this country have access to world-class medical care and that their health is always in good hands. Yet, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), maternal mortality rates are on the rise in the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines motherhood mortality as “the annual number of female deaths from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management (excluding accidental or incidental causes) during pregnancy and childbirth or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy.”

According to the most recent data from the CDC, in 2020, the maternal mortality rate in the United States—the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births—reached 23.8 compared with 20.1 in 2019. This rate indicates a total of 861 women who died of maternal causes in the United States in 2020 compared to 754 women in 2019, continuing an upward trend in maternal mortality rates in the U.S.

The data shows motherhood mortality rates rise significantly among women over the age of 40 and among non-Hispanic Black women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate among non-Hispanic Blacks was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. This was a significant increase for non-Hispanic Black women from 2019 when the maternal mortality rate was 44.0. Among non-Hispanic white women, the rate only increased slightly from 2019 to 2020, rising from 17.9 to 19.1. Rates also increase with maternal age. Women over the age of 40 have the highest maternal mortality rate at 107.9—7.8 times higher than the rate for those under the age of 25.

Maternal mortality occurs as a result of complications during and following pregnancy and childbirth. According to WHO, some of these complications existed before and worsened during pregnancy. But most develop during a woman’s pregnancy and are preventable or treatable. Nearly 3 in 4 maternal deaths are caused by severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy, complications from delivery, or unsafe abortion. These are all known complications with known solutions.

In a world marred by the consequences of sin, maternal deaths are not a new occurrence. There are women in the Bible who died of child birthing complications. Both Rachel (Gen. 35:16-20) and the wife of Phinehas (1 Sam. 4:19-20) died after prolonged and difficult labors. And despite our attempts to combat the consequences of sin with things like science and medicine, sin still affects our world today.

Protecting women’s lives

Today, healthcare providers have well-known solutions to prevent or manage maternal complications. WHO identifies two primary indicators for preventing maternal deaths: 1) Access to high-quality healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth as well as after childbirth; and 2) Access to contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancies (though Christians would not support the use of abortifacients or the morning after pill).

Sadly, there are still women in the United States who do not receive the care they need during or after their pregnancies. The five main factors that “prevent women from receiving or seeking care during pregnancy and childbirth” are:

  1. Poverty
  2. Distance to facilities
  3. Lack of information
  4. Inadequate and poor quality services
  5. Cultural beliefs and practices

WHO suggests that to “improve maternal health, barriers that limit access to quality maternal health services must be identified and addressed at both health systems and societal levels.”

The church’s response

So what should the church do? The church can start by genuinely caring. Christ-followers should care because all people have dignity and worth. No matter their circumstances or conditions, every woman, baby, and family is valuable. When Christians show they care about women and are broken over the issues that arise when women don’t receive the care they need, the world sees a little more clearly that God cares for women. He cares for the broken. He cares for the hurting. As Christ’s ambassadors, God calls the church to love women, babies, and families and to be conduits of life.

Pregnant women and their families, healthcare providers, hospitals and healthcare systems, and states and communities can work together to reduce maternal mortality rates. And as churches invest themselves in their communities and pursue the well-being of their cities (Jere. 29:4-7), they are uniquely positioned to be a source of hope and light.

At the state and community level, the CDC offers three specific steps toward reducing maternal deaths:

  1. Assess and coordinate delivery hospitals for risk-appropriate care
  2. Support review of the causes behind every maternal death
  3. Identify and address social factors influencing maternal health such as unstable housing, transportation access, food insecurity, substance use, violence, and racial and economic inequality

It may be easier for us to close our eyes and walk on the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-27), avoiding the hurt that could come from engaging with the rising issue of maternal mortality. But God calls the church to respond to suffering in the world around us. For example, in light of the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision, and the resulting restrictions on abortion, many pregnancy care centers across the nation are considering how they might meet the needs of the additional numbers of women and families who are walking through their doors for assistance. This has included adding more medical services, such as ultrasounds or STD-testing, which can be an important first step in prenatal care. 

God calls us to protect the physical lives of the vulnerable among us, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) as we live out the call to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). And he calls the church to be a light in this world, pushing back the darkness by physically caring for women while pointing them to the One who became vulnerable in order to make them whole (Matt.5:14-16).

Marissa Postell

Marissa Postell serves as the managing editor of LifewayResearch.com. As a writer, she hopes to tell compelling narratives to equip the church to live on mission for the kingdom of God. Read More by this Author