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The rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. is going up, study shows

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The rate of pregnancy-related deaths is going up in the United States. For some groups, it's more than doubled in recent decades, and a new study confirms the trends we've been reporting on NPR for some time. NPR's Pien Huang has details.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: The study looks at state-by-state data from 2009 to 2019. It's published in the medical journal JAMA. Co-author Dr. Allison Bryant is an obstetrician at Mass General Hospital in Boston. She says maternal death rates in the U.S. just keep getting worse.

ALLISON BRYANT: And that is exacerbated in populations that have been sort of starkly underserved, or for whom structural racism affects them greatly.

HUANG: Maternal death rates have consistently been highest among Black women, and those high rates have doubled in the past 20 years. For American Indian and Alaska Native people, the rates have tripled. Dr. Gregory Roth at the University of Washington also co-authored the paper. He says efforts to stop pregnancy deaths have not only stalled in areas like the South, where rates have typically been high...

GREGORY ROTH: We're showing that they are worsening in places that are often thought of as having better health.

HUANG: ...Such as New York and New Jersey for Black and Latina mothers, higher death rates in Idaho and New Hampshire for Native Americans and among Asians in Wyoming and Montana. Dr. Catherine Spong at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center says pregnancy-related deaths can be caused by different things.

CATHERINE SPONG: The biggest morbid conditions are things such as cardiovascular disease, severe preeclampsia, maternal cardiac disease, hemorrhage.

HUANG: Continuing heart problems and mental health conditions can also contribute to the death of a new mother. The researchers say doctors would have a better chance of dealing with these health conditions if more women had access to health care after their babies were born. For those who get their health care through Medicaid, medical coverage lasts at least two months after the birth of a child. Since 2021, states have had the option to extend that coverage for a year. So far, 36 states and Washington, D.C. have done so.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

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Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.