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Yes, childbirth is more dangerous for women than the abortion pill

American women are dying during pregnancy and childbirth at double the rate they were 20 years ago.

American women are dying during pregnancy and childbirth at double the rate they were 20 years ago.

If Minnesota’s Republican legislators were really thinking about the health and safety of women of childbearing age, they wouldn’t be focusing, as they did Wednesday, on laws that make it more difficult for women to receive the abortion pill.

They would, instead, be doing everything they can to make sure all of Minnesota’s women have full access to safe and affordable medical care during pregnancy and childbirth.

For, despite what his political opponents might think, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidjii, was correct when he stated, “One of the most dangerous things a woman can do is go through childbirth. That’s way more dangerous than the [abortion] drugs you’re trying to protect them from.”

Maternal death rate doubles

In 2010, as I reported at the time, Amnesty International released a damning report about pregnancy and childbirth care in the United States. That report noted that American women are dying during pregnancy and childbirth at double the rate they were 20 years ago (from 6.6 per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006).

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In other words, two to three women are dying daily in the United States from pregnancy-related complications. And the number may be even higher, for no federal agency requires hospitals or other institutions to report maternal deaths.

A look at the numbers

Now, compare those statistics to the ones Minnesota’s Republicans cited in support of the new abortion-pill legislation: Between September 2000, when the abortion drug mifepristone was approved for use in the United States, and April 2011, an estimated 14 women died and 612 women were hospitalized for mifepristone-related complications.

Eight of those 14 women died as a result of toxic infections, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [PDF]. But the cause of death in the other six cases is more problematic, as additional factors were involved, including drug overdoses. The FDA even lists one of the cases as a suspected homicide.

Yet, even if we accept that all 14 of those deaths were directly related to mifepristone, that’s still 14 deaths out of the 1.52 million U.S. women who took the drug during that period. The maternal death rate for medical abortion, therefore, is less than 1 in 100,000 — or, as Rep. Persell stated, much safer than childbirth.

To be fair, Minnesota has done a better job than most states at reducing maternal deaths. Our maternal death rate, as cited in the Amnesty International report, was 3.7 deaths per 100,000 live births, one of the lowest in the country — but still much higher than the rate of maternal death associated with medical abortion.

Making all women safe

Of course, no women should die after taking mifepristone. Women need to understand the risks associated with the drug so they can quickly recognize signs of infection and uncontrolled bleeding. They also need to have access to good follow-up medical care.

But no women should be dying during pregnancy and childbirth, either. And that’s a much, much more serious health problem for American women. In fact, as the Amnesty International report also pointed out, women in the U.S. are now at greater risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes than women in 40 other countries — five times greater than Greek women, for example, and four times greater than German women.

‘Systemic failures’

According to Amnesty International, pregnant women and new mothers are dying because of “systemic failures” in our current health system: non-existent or inadequate health care coverage, financial and physical barriers to accessing care (including a lack of physicians in rural areas), and an overuse of risky interventions, such as inducing labor and delivering via cesarean section.

In Minnesota, about 14 percent of women receive delayed or no prenatal care. And for women of color, that percentage doubles to almost 28 percent.

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Now there’s an area where we could use some more legislative efforts — if we really want to improve the health and safety of women, that is.