Why Are Pregnancy-Related Deaths Increasing?

Pregnant woman in labor at the hospital speaking with a doctor

Pregnancy and birth are among the most joyful times in the life of a woman and her family—but they can also be among the most dangerous. While the great majority of pregnancies end happily, with a healthy mother and baby, pregnancy-related deaths are still too common in this country, and they are on the increase. “Pregnancy-related death” is defined by the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System (PMSS) as “a death while pregnant or within one year after the end of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy.”

CDC Statistics on Pregnancy-Related Death

According to the CDC’s records, the pregnancy-related mortality ratio was 7.2 per 100,000 live births in 1987. In 2019, the last year for which statistics are available, the figure was 17.6 per 100,000 live births—more than double. Nor is that number an outlier; the pregnancy-related mortality ratio has generally trended upwards over time.

Another disturbing fact about pregnancy-related death is that Black women, Native American and indigenous Alaskan women, and non-Hispanic Pacific Islanders have two to three times the maternal mortality rate of white women. The reason for this unacceptable disparity is not clear, but it may have something to do with access to care and racial discrimination by health care providers. With many hospitals closing and fewer medical students choosing to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, the issue of access to care is unlikely to improve.

Causes of Pregnancy-Related Death

There are many potential causes of pregnancy-related death. In many (if not most) cases, pregnancy-related death is preventable, making it all the more tragic. Often, a medical condition that causes a person to die during or after pregnancy should have been detected and effectively treated before the patient’s life was at risk. Failure to appropriately monitor, diagnose, or treat a pregnant person or new mother may be medical malpractice.

Some of the most common causes of pregnancy-related death include:

Maternal Infection

Many types of infections in pregnant women can cause birth injuries, leading to serious conditions or even death for a baby. But maternal infection during or after pregnancy can put the mother’s life at risk, too. These include Group B strep (GBS), urinary tract infections (UTIs), and most sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In addition, medical conditions like HIV or diabetes can increase the risk of complications from infection during and after pregnancy, so a pregnant person’s medical provider should be especially vigilant in screening for and treating infections if they have a condition that puts them at greater risk.

Sepsis

Sepsis is the body’s inflammatory, system-wide response to an unchecked infection, and is a primary reason that doctors must be vigilant about detecting and treating infection during pregnancy. Sepsis can lead to death of both a pregnant woman and her child. Even when sepsis is not a cause of maternal mortality, it can cause premature delivery and lead to a longer and more difficult postpartum recovery.

Heart Disease

You might be surprised to learn that cardiovascular disease is one of the major underlying conditions that can lead to pregnancy-related death. Women who have a history of high blood pressure or heart disease prior to pregnancy are at higher risk for complications during and after pregnancy.

The Preeclampsia Foundation cautions that women who experience preeclampsia during pregnancy have double the risk of heart attack and stroke later in life, and quadruple the risk of high blood pressure. Those conditions could develop many years into the future, but preeclampsia may also increase risk of serious heart issues during the postpartum period.

Hemorrhage

Hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide, with the majority of those pregnancy-related deaths occurring in low- or middle-income countries. However, hemorrhage can also be a cause of maternal death even in more prosperous countries such as the United States.

Hemorrhage is more common when a woman has a c-section, but it can occur in vaginal births as well. It is estimated that hemorrhage takes place in at least 1%, and as many as 5% of births in the United States. Doctors should be aware of a patient’s risk factors and advise patients what to do in the event they begin to hemorrhage after they return home from the hospital after giving birth.

Mental Health Issues

Often overlooked are mental health issues that women may experience during or after pregnancy and which have a great impact on overall health. Post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety are all common mental health conditions which can be exacerbated by pregnancy or giving birth. Death may result from suicide, accidental overdose, or the development of a substance abuse disorder.

Pregnancy-Related Death and Medical Malpractice

Not every pregnancy-related death is attributable to medical malpractice. But in many cases, a doctor who is responsible for a woman’s care may neglect to timely diagnose or appropriately treat a condition that a reasonable doctor would have. An OB/GYN who fails to act as a reasonable, similarly-situated doctor would under the same circumstances may be liable for medical malpractice.

If you have lost a loved one due to a pregnancy-related death that might have been caused by medical malpractice, consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your options and your rights. We invite you to contact The Fraser Law Firm P.C. to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Categories: Medical Malpractice