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Human Rights-Based Approaches to Maternal Death in the U.S.

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Written by Cristina Finch for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights. It is also published in recognition of International Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2010.

Amnesty International released a report last spring entitled Deadly Delivery concerning the maternal health care crisis in the United States including how this crisis disproportionately affects marginalized communities.  This report is part of a series of reports that we are issuing as part of our Dignity campaign which is focused on fighting poverty with human rights.  The statistics are shocking; every 90 seconds a woman dies from pregnancy related causes.  Although the vast majority of these deaths are in the developing world, it is also an issue in the United States which spends more on health care than any other country in the world. On November 2, I presented Amnesty International’s findings during a panel discussion at the UN.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Every human being has the right to health, including healthcare.” Unfortunately, the human right to health care, particularly maternal health care, is not being met in the US. The problem is especially severe in marginalized communities such as women of color. Since the vast majority of maternal deaths in the United States are preventable, maternal mortality is a human rights issue. Mahmoud Fathalla, past president of the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, once said, "Women are not dying of diseases we can't treat. [...] They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving."

Two to three women die each day in the US because of pregnancy-related causes. A further 34,000 more women experience “near misses” each year. Women in the US are more likely to die of complications resulting from pregnancy or childbirth than women in 49 other countries, including South Korea, Kuwait, and Bulgaria. In fact, according to recently released UN numbers, the maternal mortality rate nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008.

There are shocking inequities in maternal health in the US. Women of color, low-income women, Indigenous women, immigrant women and women with limited English proficiency all face additional risks. Read more