The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created the public concern about black maternal mortality. In February, the CDC released data showing that the maternal mortality rate for black women is 2.9 times higher than the rate for white women. It’s a worrisome statistic, yet the CDC’s own data, as well as a study from the CDC Foundation, provide crucial (and generally unreported) context.
To be clear, even a single death of a pregnant woman is one too many. But the overwhelming majority of women survive motherhood: in 2020, according to the CDC, 861 women in the United States died related to pregnancy, out of a total of about 3.6 million births—a rate of 0.02 percent. Just over 350 were white, while just under 300 were black. Scientifically speaking, it’s hard to draw society-wide conclusions from such a small sample. It’s even harder when you recognize that the CDC statistics include deaths that occurred up to a year after delivery, as well as those caused by underlying and preexisting medical conditions that pregnancy may have aggravated. And the CDC admits that the systems for identifying mortality rates are prone to error.
The panel found that less than about a third of the preventable deaths, across all races, were attributable to individual providers. It did not cite racial bias as the reason. Yet the academic and media narrative leads to the assumption that black mothers are dying because doctors and nurses are racist. This leads to a corresponding claim that black mothers would die less often if they saw black doctors, which some call “racial concordance.” These are strange assertions, since Hispanic maternal mortality is lower than the rate for whites, which wouldn’t be true if medical professionals were racist. Yet these claims are still being used to justify discriminatory and dangerous policies across health care.
Author(s): Stanley Goldfarb, Benita Cotton-Orr
Publication Date: 18 Nov 2022