EDITORIAL: Why We Let Mothers Die

Why are women in the District dying during or soon after childbirth and what is causing the rate of maternal mortality to steadily increase, particularly among Black women in the nation’s capital? This growing health care crisis in the District has caused one elected official to step into action.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) declared this “nothing short of a maternal health crisis.” Since last year, Allen has pushed legislation to establish a maternal mortality review committee to collect data that will provide answers and inform policy recommendations to end the death of women during or within 42 days postpartum.

Allen reported in a recent press release that per 100,000 residents, the maternal mortality rate for the District is 40.9, far higher than the U.S. average of 19.9 and much higher than the second-highest rate among developed nations, Great Britain (9.2). Further, the National Institutes of Health reports that the U.S. has the highest ratio of maternal mortality from among all highly-resourced countries and the ratio continues to rise.

The Committee of the Whole voted unanimously on Tuesday to support Allen’s bill that will establish a committee to work under the Chief Medical Officer. Once established, the District will join approximately 28 other states with a maternal mortality review committee including Maryland and Virginia.

In testimony presented in December supporting Allen’s bill, Shana Bartley, acting executive director of DC Action for Children, highlighted a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which indicated that Black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women — an inequality that is likely reflected or exceeded in the District. And while income level and education may play a role, it is not the determining factor for the disparity between Black and white women.

For each death reviewed, maternal mortality review committees decide: (1) Was the death pregnancy-related? (2) What was the cause of death? (3) Was the death preventable? (4) What were the critical contributing factors to the death? (5) What are the recommendations and actions that address those contributing factors? (6) What is the anticipated impact of those actions if implemented?

The bad news in the District rests in the fact that two obstetrics wards in the city have closed and that too many women are not receiving the proper amount of prenatal care, which may explain why mental health has been identified as a leading underlying cause of pregnancy-related death.

However, the good news, according to the CDC, is that nearly 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. That said, it’s about time the District joined the bandwagon to stop the death of mothers during pregnancy and childbirth.

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