I’m a huge fan of your blog! Please keep the awesome entries coming! I am learning so much. I am just a novice birth-junkie rather than a birth professional and so am anxious to eat up all the great information you’re giving out here.
Anyhow…. Our state treasurer’s wife (that’s here in Arizona) died today in childbirth, and their baby is said to be in grave condition. They’re not giving causes or reasons. Here’s the link:
Can you think of occurrences in hospital-birth that would end up with a dead mother and a baby in really bad condition? I’d love to hear from someone who knows her stuff. The things that came to mind for me were amniotic fluid embolism, severe uterine rupture, and cesarean gone really wrong.
Keep up the amazing work!!!
Dear Diana J.,
I just read the story you linked to and my heart goes out to that family. Unfortunately the story you linked to did not go into any details, including the most important detail which is: Did the treasurer’s wife have a vaginal birth or a cesarean section, as the risks are significantly higher with a cesarean section. I think your question is a good one and since this story has the potential to make national headlines, I think that it is an important enough question to put as its own post on my site. I hope, however in posting about your question that moms out there who read my blog are not unnecessarily worried or upset that we are talking about maternal death as it is still a relatively RARE occurrence when you think about all the other causes of death in childbearing women.
Let’s put it into perspective. As the Arizona Central story stated, “In late 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released a report showing that there were 13 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2004 in the United States.” And since in 2004 there were 4.1 million births in the United States, if you do the math that would make about 533 maternal deaths in 2004. And don’t get me wrong…that’s 533 deaths to many for sure! However take a look at this chart published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) entitled: Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, All Females- United States, 2004. It shows the following:
Leading Causes of Death for 15-19 year old Females, 2004:
1) Unintentional Injury (51.7%), 2) Suicide (8.8%), 3) Homicide (7.5%), 4) Cancer (7.3%), 5) Heart Disease (3.1%), 6) Birth Defects (2.8%), 7) Pregnancy Complications (0.9%)
Leading Causes of Death for 20-24 year old Females, 2004:
1) Unintentional Injuries (40.5%), 2) Homicide (8.4%), 3) Cancer (8.0%), 4) Suicide (7.6%), 5) Heart Disease (4.6%), 5) Pregnancy Complications (2.7%), 6) Birth Defects (1.9%), 7) HIV disease/Stroke (1.4%).
Leading Causes of Death for 25-34 year old Females, 2004:
1) Unintentional Injuries (25.3%), 2) Cancer (15.1%), 3) Heart Disease (8.2%), 4) Suicide (7.5%), 5) Homicide (5.8%), 6) HIV disease (4.4%), 7) Pregnancy Complications (2.3%).
And for women ages 35-44 years old, pregnancy complications don’t even crack the top 10.
Okay so if you are a pregnant mom please know that dying of pregnancy/childbirth related complications is rare and I don’t want to completely freak you out. But there is something very disturbing about the United States maternal mortality statistics which shocks most people when they hear it….
The United States ranks 42nd in the WORLD for maternal mortality rates, with 1 in 4,800 women dying from pregnancy complications in the U.S. in 2007. That means that 41 countries other countries in the world have BETTER maternal mortality rates than the United States!
Many of our practices and current situations in this country, including our obsession with medically unnecessary labor induction, our over-medicalized maternity care system, the practice of defensive as opposed to evidenced-based medicine, the lack of a universal health care system, large differences in health disparities among different racial/socioeconomic groups, the obesity epidemic, and our skyrocketing cesarean section rate greatly contribute to our country’s maternal death rate.
So what exactly is defined as “maternal death.” According to the World Health Organization, “A maternal death is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes.” Therefore a death of a woman that died from complications arising from a cesarean section a month after she had the baby would be counted in the maternal death statistics where a pregnant woman who died in a car accident or murdered during a domestic violence dispute would not.
Okay, but you are probably thinking Why? Why are so many women dying in childbirth in an industrialized, developed country like the United States at a much higher rate than other industrialized, developed countries like Japan, many countries in Europe, or Australia?
Ina May Gaskin, midwife and founder of the Safe Motherhood Quilt Project, gives us some insight into the situation in her book Spiritual Midwifery, page 455, written in 2002:
“According to the CDC, there has been no improvement in the U.S. death rate (which is nearly twice as high as Canada’s) since 1982. Sadly, the CDC estimates that the true death rate is as much as three times higher than that which is reported and that half of all the reported deaths could have been prevented through early diagnosis and good care. Given the situation it makes sense for women to avoid unnecessary surgery while pregnant or in labor. Women double or triple their risk of dying when they have an unnecessary cesarean. Medical mistakes do happen, even to people who are well informed about their possibility.”
Also Ina May’s Safe Motherhood Quilt Project website also links to a Maternal Mortality in the USA Fact Sheet that is worth checking out!
The 2008 documentary Orgasmic Birth (which I highly recommend renting) has a 20- minute movie clip as part of the “special features” section of the DVD that provides some eye opening statistics about maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States as compared to other industrialized countries around the world. In this short movie clip, entitled Birth By The Numbers, Eugene R. Declercq, PhD, Professor of Maternal and Child Health, Boston University School of Public Health, presents the sobering statistics of birth in the United States today. It is a MUST WATCH CLIP for anyone who is or cares about a mother.
Also, here are some articles from mainstream news sources published in response to the 2007 maternal mortality rankings that provide some insight:
1) More U.S. women dying in childbirth: Death rate highest in decades; obesity and C-sections may be the cause Associated Press, August 24, 2007
2) Maternal Mortality Shames Superpower U.S. Inter Press Service, October 13, 2007
3) U.S. ranks 41st in maternal mortality Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 12, 2007
A flyer published by the medical journal The Lancet in 2006 entitled Causes of Maternal Death: A Systematic Review ranks the top 9 causes of maternal death related to pregnancy/childbirth complications in DEVELOPED countries as the following:
1) Other Direct Causes (21.3%), complication of the pregnancy, delivery, or their management which includes (among other things):
–Anesthesia Complications* (responsible for about 3% of all maternal deaths by itself and includes: management of the difficult airway in obstetric patient, aspiration of gastric contents under general anesthesia, local anesthetic toxicity, and high spinal or epidural block which paralyzes the breathing muscles of mother).
2) Hypertensive Disorders (16.1%), includes (among other things):
3) Embolism (14.9%), includes (among other things):
–Pulmonary Embolism (typically a complication seen post-op surgery)
–Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) (more likely to develop for women on bed rest or post-op surgery
– Amniotic Fluid Embolism (rare and more appropriately known as Anaphylactic Syndrome of Pregnancy)*
4) Other Indirect Causes of Death (14.4%), pregnancy-related death in a patient with a preexisting or newly developed health problem like cardiovascular disease, seizure disorder, respiratory disorder, diabetes, kidney disorder, liver disorder, obesity, etc.
5) Hemorrhage (13.4%), includes (among other things):
– Obstetrical Hemorrhage (most common causes being uterine atony, trauma, retained placenta, and coagulopathy)
6) Abortion (8.2%)
7) Ectopic Pregnancy (4.9%)
8.) Unclassified Death (4.8%)
9) Sepsis Infection* (2.1%) (most likely to occur post-operatively but can occur post-partum or antepartum)
*Comes to mind for me as having the potential to cause a critical illness or death for baby as well.
**Please note mothers undergoing cesarean surgery, especially repeat caesarean surgery are MORE at risk for anesthesia complications, pulmonary embolism, obstetrical hemorrhage, placenta previa, placenta accreta, and sepsis/infection than moms undergoing a vaginal birth.**
You are probably thinking, “So what does all of this mean for me?” “How can I reduce my risk?” Both are GREAT questions. It is important to remember that I am not claiming that 100% of maternal deaths are preventable or even foreseeable. No one is. I also do not want anyone to get the impression that I am blaming mothers or putting unrealistic pressures on mothers to control things that are sometimes just happenings that are an unfortunate and very sad part of life. For example, who could have predicted a fatal postpartum hemorrhage for a healthy mom after a normal uncomplicated unmedicated singleton vaginal birth? No one could! But what about a mom who experienced a fatal postpartum hemorrhage after elective cesarean surgery….well that one doesn’t sit so well with me! And which do you think is more likely? If you guessed the latter you are correct…by at least 4 times as much!
So how does a mother reduce her risk of maternal morbidity and mortality related to pregnancy and childbirth complications? The following is a short list you might want to keep in mind. (Not surprisingly, many relate back to avoiding unnecessary surgery.)
TOP TEN Ways to Reduce Your Risk For Complications in Pregnancy and Childbirth:
1) Obtain good and thorough prenatal care, keeping all of your appointments, preferably beginning in your first trimester.
2) Make a conscious effort to eat a well balanced diet during conception and pregnancy that includes adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein. There are a variety of prenatal nutrition books out there as well as many childbirth books that have a section on prenatal nutrition. If you don’t have one buy one or borrow one from the library!!
3) If you don’t exercise, start! Many gyms, community centers, and YMCAs offer low-impact, pregnancy-friendly classes for expectant moms. Even a 30 minute walk three times a week will do!
4) If you suffer from a chronic disease or illness or are obese, it is important to know that making appointments with health care providers and specialists that can help you to manage your disease and lose weight in a healthy way before and during pregnancy can ultimately help you to reduce your risk of life threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
5) Consider hiring a birth attendant that practices a midwifery model of care.
6) Do NOT agree to a medically unnecessary labor induction.
7) Do NOT agree to a medically unnecessary or elective cesarean section.
8) If you have a history of a cesarean section, seriously consider a vaginal birth after cesarean section (VBAC) if you have no reoccurring or new reasons or medical indications for a repeat cesarean. If necessary switch to a birth attendant that supports VBAC and has the cesarean statistics to prove it.
9) Seriously consider avoiding interventions in labor that evidenced-based research have shown could increase your risk of a cesarean section, fetal distress, and infection including early amniotomy (breaking of waters), accepting pitocin to stimulate or augment contractions without trying other more natural methods for augmenting labor first, going to the hospital during very early labor, accepting continuous external fetal monitoring as opposed to intermittent auscultation for a normal healthy labor and a normal, reactive, and reassuring fetal heart rate pattern, and requesting an epidural or narcotic pain medication (especially in early labor) before trying all methods of non-pharmacological pain management techniques first. (Check out my post: Top 8 Ways to Have an Unnecessary Cesarean Section)
10) Empower yourself to make safe, healthy decisions regarding your pregnancy, your labor, your birth, and your baby by doing your own research!! (Check out my post: Birth Resources EVERY Woman Should Know About).