Maternal Deaths Increased Since COVID, Reminding Us Pregnant Women Are Vulnerable
The 2020 numbers have been crunched, and the maternal mortality rate is up. Maternal mortality is defined as death during pregnancy, or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy, excluding accidental causes of death; the rate is defined as deaths per 100,000 live births.
The U.S. maternal mortality rate has gone from 17.4 in 2018 to 20.1 in 2019 to 23.8 in 2020, the latest year with data reported. In total, 861 maternal deaths occurred in 2020 in the United States.
Perhaps even more concerning is the breakdown by race: the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Blacks jumped from 44.0 in 2019 to 55.3 in 2020; the rate for Hispanics went from 12.6 in 2019 to 18.2 in 2020. Both of these increases were statistically significant. (The maternal mortality rate for whites increased from 17.9 to 19.1 in the same period, but this change was not statistically significant).
This CDC report looks only at maternal deaths and number of live births; it is not able to report on the cause for the increase. However, the big question on everyone’s mind is, “Is this increase due to COVID?”
Other data on the CDC website tallies 82 maternal deaths due to COVID during 2020, suggesting that a staggering 82/861 = 9.5% of maternal deaths were directly associated with COVID infection in the mother. Data has grown throughout the pandemic showing that pregnant women are at disproportionate risk of severe effects from COVID, harming both them and their babies.
COVID also likely contributed to the increase in maternal mortality rate indirectly: women may have delayed seeking life-sustaining care due to fear of catching the disease by going to the hospital. The health system also experienced massive disruption, leading to pre-natal visits being postponed or canceled and labor and delivery wards being shut down.
After birth, mental health conditions like depression contribute to maternal mortality, and the anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic have certainly contributed to increased depression in new mothers.
We also know that COVID has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic populations, leading to higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death. Such factors may have contributed to the increase in the already sky-high maternal mortality rates among American Blacks.
Most doctors, scientists, and policymakers agree that the United States’s maternal mortality rates are too high, especially in comparison to other high-resource countries, but opinions vary widely on what the possible causes are and how to solve the problem—from better diagnosis and treatment for top causes like hemorrhage and cardiovascular complications, to more extensive COVID vaccine coverage in pregnant women and those around them, to social solutions like expanded insurance coverage and guaranteed paid parental leave.
In the forthcoming Winter 2022 issue of Human Life Review, I take a closer look at the losses of babies and pregnant mothers caused by the COVID pandemic (using data that was available at press time as 2021 came to a close). Now as we read this latest data, we are reminded that, in the fight to protect preborn babies and their mothers, one must seriously consider safeguards against COVID, since the data reveals these populations are vulnerable.