Maternal mortality is just one of the ways we can see the effects of inequality. Throughout the nation, women of color are at greater risk of dying during (or shortly after) childbirth when compared to their white counterparts.
In Mississippi, for example, black women are almost twice as likely to die of pregnancy related causes. California, a generally liberal and wealthy state, has a 4:1 disparity in black to white death risk. Nationwide there is a significant black-to-white maternal mortality ratio, and we choose to include California to make the point that this is not simply a problem of poor or southern states. California does better, on average, for all women, when compared to Mississippi, but the reduction in risk largely accrues to white mothers, leaving black women far more vulnerable to dying as a result of childbirth. And now we’re back to where we started in the image below: black mothers are four times as likely as white mothers to die during childbirth.
The United States averages for racial disparities in maternal mortality show that across the nation, on average, black mothers have three times the risk of dying in childbirth (or of complications related to it) when compared to white mothers. Decades of research have a established the existence of a social gradient in health — that is, that wealthier groups tend to have better health. Most Americans (that we’ve asked) correctly guess that African Americans are less wealthy than their white counterparts. However, the answer for this increased risk of death due to childbirth is not simply socioeconomic. Studies that have controlled for socioeconomic status have found a persistent racial disparity in death rates . One study that looked at a decade of national data showed that the top five medical conditions the precipitate maternal mortality do not occur more frequently for black women than white. Black women are at equal risk of the event (e.g. preeclampsia, hemorrhage, etc), but at three times the risk of dying as a result of the event. When controlling for financial resources, this racial disparity in health is present in other arenas too, such as low birthweight for infants.
And finally, if all of this wasn’t bad enough, our maternal mortality ratio has remain stagnant for more than 30 years, and at present we’re one of only a handful of countries to see it increasing.