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Editorial: Bad policies drive up American maternal death rate

Here’s a disturbing report: American women die in pregnancy and childbirth at an ever-worse rate, while most other nations enjoy better maternal health.

The Britain-based international health research journal, The Lancet, says the United States now ranks 60th out of 180 countries in such female deaths, after ranking 22nd in 1990.

For every 100,000 births last year, 18.5 American women died. In contrast, only 2.4 died during pregnancy and birth in Iceland, 6.1 in Britain, and 8.2 in Canada. A pregnant U.S. woman is twice as likely to die as one in Saudi Arabia.

A quarter-century ago, the U.S. maternal mortality rate was 12.4 women per 100,000 births, but now it’s 18.5. While America heads in the wrong direction, other advanced democracies have been improving.

In an essay titled “How the Right Wing is Killing Women,” former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said America’s dismal showing can be linked to conservative cuts in the U.S. safety net that sustains families in need.

“Researchers aren’t sure what’s happening,” he wrote, “but they’re almost unanimous in pointing to a lack of access to health care, coupled with rising levels of poverty. Some American women are dying during pregnancy and childbirth from health problems they had before they became pregnant but worsened because of the pregnancies — such as diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease. The real problem, in other words, was they didn’t get adequate health care before they became pregnant. Other women are dying because they didn’t have the means to prevent a pregnancy they shouldn’t have had, or they didn’t get the prenatal care they needed during their pregnancies.”

Poor women in inner-city ghettos are foremost victims. “Women with no health insurance are four times more likely to die during pregnancy or in childbirth than women who are insured,” Reich said.

Low-income U.S. states suffer the worst maternal death rate — and many of them are ruled by Republicans who oppose President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“Many of these high-poverty states are among the 21 that have so far refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost for the first three years and at least 90 percent thereafter,” said the ex-labor secretary, now a California university professor. He concluded:

“Several of these same states have also cut family planning, restricted abortions and shuttered women’s health clinics. Right-wing ideology is trumping the health needs of millions of Americans. Let’s be perfectly clear: These policies are literally killing women.”

Take a moment to ponder that dreadful allegation. It’s extremely sobering.

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