High blood pressure took one mom’s life. Excessive bleeding left another with a hysterectomy. Would long-known safety practices have saved both?

Walbert Castillo, USA TODAY

For every five mothers dying in the United States from pregnancy and childbirth, three could have been saved if they had received better medical care, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report published Tuesday.

The report details how mothers are dying needlessly before, during and up to a year after giving birth from pregnancy-related complications and health conditions aggravated by childbirth.

The agency’s latest analysis of national maternal mortality data adds to the growing body of evidence that more than half of deaths are preventable. And it further illustrates how delayed and missed diagnoses by medical providers, failures to recognize warning signs, and a lack of patient access to healthcare are all fueling this country’s status as the most dangerous place to give birth among developed nations.

The CDC’s analysis also confirms “persistent racial disparities” in the risks faced by black women and American Indian/Alaska Native women, who are three-times as likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

“Most deaths were preventable, regardless of race or ethnicity,” the CDC found.

“Our new analysis underscores the need for access to quality services, risk awareness, and early diagnosis, but it also highlights opportunities for preventing future pregnancy-related deaths,” said Dr. Wanda Barfield, director of the CDC’s reproductive health division.

Every year more than 50,000 U.S. women suffer serious complications related to childbirth and about 700 die. For years, hospitals and healthcare providers have blamed the country’s rising rates of maternal deaths and injuries on mothers being too old, too fat or too unhealthy to have safe deliveries.

An ongoing USA TODAY investigation has revealed widespread failures by hospitals and providers to follow nationally recognized childbirth safety practices known to save mothers’ lives from medical mistakes and poor care. Last month the bipartisan leadership of a congressional oversight committee sent letters to six federal health agencies, citing USA TODAY’s investigation and asking for briefings on what they are doing to address what they called the alarming rate of mothers being harmed.

Tuesday’s CDC report provides some additional new detail about when women are dying during their pregnancy and postpartum periods, and it reveals how their causes of death vary.

Of the 700 pregnancy-related deaths that occur each year, the CDC found that during 2011-2015 about one-third happened during pregnancy, about one-third happened during childbirth or the week after delivery, and about one-third happened in the following year.

Shantel Smith developed an infection after a stillbirth at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans in 2011. In an ongoing lawsuit, Smith alleges that delayed diagnosis and treatment resulted in devastating amputations of her legs and hands.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY

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