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NYC Will Investigate Cause of America’s Maternal Mortality Crisis

Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City have recently established committees to figure out why maternal mortality is rising in the U.S. and declining everywhere else.

Nearly 1,000 U.S. women die in childbirth each year, and 65,000 barely escape with their lives. That’s a staggering number, made even more staggering by the fact that virtually every other developed country faces lower casualty rates. American women are three times more likely to die in the “maternal period” (from the start of pregnancy until one year postpartum) than Canadian women and six times more likely to die than Scandinavian women. And even as death rates decline in the U.K., the maternal death rate in the U.S. has only increased since 2000.

Now, New York City is launching the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee (or “M3RC”) to review these deaths and try to prevent future ones. “We want to advocate for quality improvement, not just in the city, but in all the hospitals in the community,” Lorraine Boyd, medical director of the city health department’s Bureau of Maternal, Infant, and Reproductive Health, told ProPublica. Boyd says the committee will bring doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, and social workers together—people “who can better reflect how women live their lives.”

New York joins Baltimore and Philadelphia in forming citywide M3RCs to help fill the gaps in maternal mortality reporting. National data on maternal death is scarce, and no existing body in the U.S. reviews each individual mother who dies in childbirth to figure out why tragedy struck. The goal of each M3RC is to collect reliable data and produce robust reports to help pinpoint some of the reasons why childbirth has become safer for women everywhere except America.

Absent data explaining why American women disproportionately die in childbirth, theories abound. Women in the U.S. give birth later in life, when they’re less able to handle the stress of labor and more likely to have complex medical histories, some experts maintain. Others note that half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, so many women don’t receive sufficient prenatal care. The U.S. has soaring C-section rates, which inevitably introduce complications. Britain has taken herculean steps to combat maternal mortality, while the U.S. has not.

The proliferation of M3RCs in major U.S. cities could be the start of a national shift toward safer maternal periods for American women. New York City officials have already secured a grant for the committee, and committed eight government staffers to manage the project part-time.  

“This is something that we’re committed to,” Carolina Rodriguez of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told ProPublica. NYC’s M3RC is an initiative that “the city has prioritized [and] that the health department has committed to fund and to see work.”