By Roxanna Brealey, BA History and Politics
Maternal death rates are currently at a twenty-year high according to a report by Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audit and Confidential Enquiries (MBRRACE-UK). Figures from this report provide new and alarming information. From data collected between 2020-22, the maternal death rate was 13.41 per 100,000 births and with the exclusion of COVID cases, the maternal death rate was 11.54 per 100,000 births.
This marks a stark increase from 2017-19 figures of 8.79 per 100,000 births. While the issue of the maternal death rate has always been a concern for health officials, recent statements have been released regarding the matter. An NHS England spokesperson stated: “While the NHS has made significant improvements to the maternity services over the last decade, we know further action is needed to improve the experiences of women and their families across the country.” This statement has been released after significant funding for maternal care in the NHS has been increased on two occasions. In 2021 £95.5 million extra was given to maternity services in response to the Ockenden report which gave recommendations on how to make maternity services safer. Additionally, in 2022, an extra £127 million was used to fund maternal services in the UK.
The report from MBRRACE-UK, an organisation that studies the risks of pregnancy and birth, provides further information into the direct and indirect causes of maternal death from 2020-22. The most significant direct causes of death were thrombosis and thromboembolism, as well as suicide. Suicide was recorded up to six weeks after birth. Indirect causes of maternal death include, most significantly, COVID-19, followed by cardiac and neurological diseases.
The data collected can be further broken down to see how maternal death impacts certain demographics. For Black women, the maternal death rate is three times higher than for white women, and for Asian women, it is two times higher. Women giving birth in deprived areas experience maternal mortality more than two times higher than those living in the least deprived areas. Whilst this data is shocking, the inequalities are not new. Dr Nicola Vousden, a clinical research fellow in Maternal and Child Population Health, has expressed that these disparities are caused by “underlying structures that impact health before, during and after pregnancy, such as housing, education and access to health environments.”
There are campaigns across the UK such as the #blackmaternalhealthdebate, supported by MP Zarah Sultana, that aim to address disparities amongst the Black community. A report published in April 2023 by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee suggested that racial bias against Black women played a key role in the disproportionate death rate, as doctors were more likely to underestimate the pain they experienced.