Headlines on Thursday trumpeted the latest grim maternal mortality rates in the United States:
Maternal deaths surged to the highest rate in nearly 60 years, data showed, exacerbating a yearslong trend that has made the U.S. the most dangerous place among high-income countries to give birth.
The number of women who died during pregnancy or shortly after rose 40% to 1,205 in 2021, compared with 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019, the National Center for Health Statistics said Thursday. The increase pushed the maternal-mortality rate to 33 deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest since 1965, compared with 24 in 2020 and 20 in 2019.
These are indeed shockingly high numbers, particularly in the United States, arguably the most advanced country on the planet and one with an abundance of high-tech healthcare and world-class hospitals and clinics.
But wait: What do "maternal deaths" actually mean in this context? That's the key question. Many people probably look at these headlines and first paragraphs and assume that the source of these figures is, say, inept doctors, or sub-par birthing facilities, or other factors involving incompetence and/or third-rate provisions and/or some factor in the wAr On WoMeN.
But that doesn't appear to be the main driver of these high numbers. Here's how the Wall Street Journal characterizes the data:
Cardiovascular conditions such as pulmonary embolisms, uncontrolled bleeding and problems stemming from hypertension are the leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Pulmonary embolisms...hypertension." The CDC also lists "cerebrovascular accidents," aka strokes, and cardiomyopathy. All of these conditions are linked in varying degrees — many of them strongly — to obesity, AKA the state of being significantly overweight.
The WSJ also notes:
The U.S. maternal health crisis, in other words, does not simply arise out of thin air. It is directly linked with the country's high obesity rates. Data indicates that a full 1/3 of U.S. women of childbearing age are obese; one study found that "the risk of maternal death" was "tripled in pregnant women with severe obesity."
We can solve a huge portion of this crisis quite easily, then, by attacking the obesity epidemic head-on, if we have the courage to do so. This would involve major, aggressive public health campaigns urging people to eat less, eat better and get more exercise. Healthy eating and healthy lifestyles are the quickest, surest ways of bringing down obesity rates — and thus maternal mortality rates — in the United States. It won't end all maternal deaths everywhere, but it will doubtlessly have an outsized effect on the overall rate.
Of course, public health campaigns or not, this, like so many other issues, really comes down to individuals' choices, personal agency, and resolve.
Of course, a huge portion of our popular culture is increasingly given over to glorifying obesity and downplaying the obvious, proven, inarguable negative health effects it brings about.
Public figures and doctors and health experts must push back against this dangerous delusion — instead of treating adults like grown-up toddlers — and individuals need to treat obesity like the serious health issue that it clearly is.
Or, we won't, and we'll continue to suffer the consequences: Higher mortality rates across the board — including, tragically, in pregnant women, a group whose safety and well-being we should prize above nearly all others.