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Racial Disparities in Maternal Mortality

Associates Marian MacDorman and Marie Thoma, with colleagues Eugene DeClerq and Elizabeth Howell examine birth records

With the aim of better understanding racial disparities in maternal mortality, Dr. MacDorman and colleagues analyzed 2016–2017 vital statistics mortality data with cause-of-death literals (actual words written on the death certificate) added. They created a subset of confirmed maternal deaths that had pregnancy mentions in the cause-of-death literals. Primary cause of death was identified and recoded using cause-of-death literals. They examined racial and ethnic disparities both overall and by primary cause.

The maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 3.55 times that for non-Hispanic White women. Leading causes of maternal death for non-Hispanic Black women were eclampsia and preeclampsia and postpartum cardiomyopathy with rates 5 times those for non-Hispanic White women. Non-Hispanic Black maternal mortality rates from obstetric embolism and obstetric hemorrhage were 2.3 to 2.6 times those for non-Hispanic White women. Together, these 4 causes accounted for 59% of the non-Hispanic Black‒non-Hispanic White maternal mortality disparity.

The team found that the prominence of cardiovascular-related conditions among the leading causes of confirmed maternal death, particularly for non-Hispanic Black women, necessitates increased vigilance for cardiovascular problems during the pregnant and postpartum period. Many of these deaths are preventable, they conclude.