Nationwide abortion ban would increase maternal deaths by 24%, CU Boulder research says

Banning abortion nationwide would increase maternal deaths in the United States by 24%, from 861 mothers dying to 1,071, according to new research from the University of Colorado Boulder.

CU Boulder researchers focused on how maternal mortality is impacted by abortion because data shows staying pregnant carries a higher risk of death than having an abortion, according to the university.

The research is particularly timely following last week’s reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, which triggered abortion bans in multiple states. In Colorado, the procedure remains legal as legislators this year enshrined the right to abortion access in state law. 

Some Congressional Republicans already are discussing a bill to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 0.41 deaths per 100,000 legal abortions from 2013 to 2018. In 2020, 861 women in the U.S. were identified as dying of maternal causes, compared with 754 in 2019, according to CDC data. The maternal death rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020, the research said.

“The prior estimates relied on abortion rates, births and maternal mortality rates as of five years ago,” said Amanda Stevenson, CU Boulder assistant professor sociology and lead author of the research. “Since then, abortions have increased, births have decreased and maternal mortality rates have worsened.”

Stevenson and CU Boulder coauthors Leslie Root and Jane Menken estimate that in the first year following a nationwide abortion ban, the number of maternal deaths would increase 13%, from 861 to 969. In following years, the researchers estimated maternal deaths would increase by 210 to more than 1,070 — a 24% increase.

The maternal death figures are even more severe for the Black population, whose expected increase in maternal deaths if abortion were to be outlawed in every state rose from 18% to 39%.

“There is a robust network of Black-led research demonstrating how we can better support Black pregnant people who are at 2-to-3 times greater risk of dying because they’re pregnant compared to other groups,” Stevenson said.

Some states that already have high maternal mortality and moderate to high abortion rates, such as Florida and Georgia, were estimated to see maternal deaths increase by 29%, the researchers found.

Conversely, in states that already have made accessing abortion difficult, such as Nebraska, Missouri and West Virginia, researches expected to see little to no change.

The researchers pointed out 26 states where abortion bans following the Supreme Court’s Roe reversal are expected: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona, Ohio, Texas, Montana, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Indiana, Alabama, Iowa, South Carolina, Arkansas, Nebraska, Kentucky, Idaho, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, Missouri.

They estimated if no abortions were allowed in these states in 2020, there would have been 64 more maternal deaths.

To counteract these deaths, the researchers said helping people in states where abortion is illegal access reproductive care, investing in maternal health and addressing the inequalities that generate “astronomically high levels of maternal mortality” can help support pregnant people in the U.S.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, according to data provided by the Commonwealth Fund. In 2018, there were 17 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in the U.S. — a ratio more than double that of most other high-income countries, the Commonwealth Fund data showed. In the Netherlands, Norway and New Zealand, the maternal mortality ratio was three per 100,000 or fewer, according to the Commonwealth data.

“Our estimates highlight how we can prevent the post-Dobbs bans on abortion from increasing the already tragically high numbers of deaths due to pregnancy in the U.S.,” Stevenson said. “Pregnancy shouldn’t kill people — in fact, in other rich countries it very rarely does.”

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