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  • Matthew Vainer

Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis: The Urgent Call from U.S. Bishops

The U.S. bishops this month urged Congress to address the “maternal health crisis” in the United States, stressing that American women “face a high maternal mortality rate” relative to other countries. 

Long a cause of alarm among physicians and women’s advocates, the U.S. maternal mortality rate has regularly been posited as much higher than similar developed nations. Data from the CIA’s World Factbook, for instance, shows the “U.S. maternal death ratio” per 100,000 births as more than double that of countries such as France and Greece, and nearly triple that of countries like Switzerland. 

In their letter to Congress earlier this month, the U.S. bishops pointed to “data showing the maternal mortality rate has grown over the last two decades.”

“Women must … receive maternal health care that encompasses a wholistic view of their inherent dignity and value as expressed in the unique and God-given role of motherhood,” the prelates said. 

“Women face many obstacles in obtaining quality maternal health care,” the bishops wrote, pointing also to racial disparities in maternal mortality data, with nonwhite women facing higher rates of maternal death throughout the country.

The bishops urged Congress to “consider policies that, in line with our long-standing health care principles, provide health care formulated to meet the needs of mothers from every walk of life.”

Maternal mortality calculated by several factors

Classifying maternal mortality in the U.S. has long been something of a patchwork affair due to the autonomy that states have in determining such statistics. 

Jonathan Scrafford, an OB-GYN with Ascension Via Christi in Wichita, Kansas, told CNA that maternal health outcomes around the time of pregnancy “are tracked in several ways” in the U.S.

“‘Maternal death’ is a term describing the death of a patient occurring either during pregnancy, or within six weeks following the end of the pregnancy, and from causes related to the pregnancy, but excluding purely coincidental causes,” he said. 

The “maternal mortality ratio,” meanwhile, describes “the number of maternal deaths in a given time period, per 100,000 live births,” which is seen by statisticians as a reliable indicator of maternal mortality overall. 

Variations in classification of these deaths can result in divergent datasets between countries and even U.S. states, Scrafford said. 

“Most maternal deaths in the U.S. occur during the postpartum period,” he said. “About 1 in 5 occur at some point prior to delivery; and about 1 in 4 occur between the day of delivery and the first week thereafter.” More

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