In 2019, American women are more than twice as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than they were in 1987. The effects of this crisis are disproportionately felt by black women, who die at three to four times the rate of white women. Politicians have begun to take action: Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) have each introduced new plans to combat rising maternal mortality with federal incentives for hospitals and implicit bias training for medical students.
These are important steps in the right direction. Yet it is striking that, although the solutions offered by Harris and Warren are new, the underlying causes of maternal death are anything but. The CDC cites hemorrhage and infection as two of the leading causes of pregnancy-related death, the same conditions described as “excessive bleeding after birth” and “childbed fever” in centuries-old medical texts.
Today those conditions are entirely treatable, but they persist because medical attention focuses overwhelmingly on the child, not the mother. Prenatal appointments revolve around heartbeat monitors and ultrasound scans. A majority of doctors still prescribe bed rest, even though it does not reduce preterm labor but does put women at considerable medical risk. Finally, several states with the strictest antiabortion laws have maternal mortality rates over twice the national average.