The U.S. Is Still a Terrible Place for Maternal Health

Photo: Mint Images/Tim Robbins/Getty Images

Today, Save the Children released their 16th annual State of the World’s Mothers (SotWM) report. It includes the group’s 2015 Mothers Index Rank, which uses five indicators to score countries around the world from safest (Norway) to most dangerous (Somalia) for mothers and their children. The U.S., which has a notoriously high maternal mortality rate, slid two positions, coming in 33rd and performing worse than any developed country in the world in maternal health.

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. “Many impoverished mothers move to cities thinking they’ll have better access to food, clean water, and education, but that’s not what they find,” Kathryn Bolles, the senior director of emergency health and nutrition at Save the Children, told the Cut. According to the SotWM report, the urban poor in developing countries are often as bad off (if not worse) than the average rural family; many rural families that move to urban areas to escape poverty face more extreme hardship in cities. With slums sprouting up next to shopping malls and skyscrapers abutting shantytowns, cities are increasingly divided. In most developing countries, the poorest urban children are more than twice as likely to die than their rich counterparts. In some countries, they’re five times more likely to die.

While the numbers of mothers, infants, and children dying in developing countries is higher than it is in developed nations, the issues are global. In the U.S., which Bolles called “terrible” when it comes to maternity care and infant health, the kind of extremes expected of poor countries abound. Infants in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8, where half of all kids live in poverty, were ten times more likely to die than infants born in Ward 3, the wealthiest part of the city. Race plays a major factor: In many U.S. cities, women of color are much more likely to face complications during birth and experience infant mortality than their white counterparts.

Across the globe, universal health care, clean water, and better sanitation would certainly help mothers and their children. Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Egypt, and Ethiopia have made major gains by investing in accessible health care, funding outreach and community trainings, improving quality-of-life issues in slums, and building more public hospitals. At one such public hospital in Addis Ababa, one elderly woman tending her newly born grandchild said people used to worry when a woman got pregnant because so many died, but now there’s less fear.

Except for Haiti, the ten lowest ranking countries are in Africa. Bolles recently traveled to Somalia, the lowest ranking country, where one in eight children die before they turn 5 and one in 18 women die of pregnancy-related complications. “Somalis repeatedly told me that what they needed most is help for their mothers,” Bolles said. “Despite lack of clean water and food, despite violence and instability, they repeatedly spoke of the mothers, the women in the tarps around them that bleed to death in childbirth.”

U.S. Still a Terrible Place for Moms’ Health