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New study raises questions about the CDC's data on the maternal mortality rate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It is an unimaginable tragedy every time somebody dies after childbirth or during pregnancy. The measure of that tragedy is maternal mortality. That's a death during pregnancy or within 42 days after delivery. Now, for years, alarm bells have rung about how high the U.S. maternal mortality rate is, but a new study has called those numbers into question. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us. Selena, thanks so much for being with us.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What does this latest study show?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So this was done by a team of outside researchers from Rutgers and the University of British Columbia and other universities. They put the national maternal mortality rate at 10.4 deaths per 100,000 births. So that suggests that the rate published by CDC is three times too high. And when this outside team did their analysis, they only considered deaths where a pregnancy-related cause was mentioned on the death certificate. That's different from the dataset CDC used, which is why the rate came out so different. And the study was peer reviewed and published Wednesday in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

SIMON: Now, this study's getting a lot of attention because that figure has been widely cited and used over the years.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, exactly. I mean, NPR and other outlets have written a lot about the most recent rate from CDC, which was 32.9 deaths per 100,000 - a lot more than 10. So that's astronomically high compared to other wealthy countries. It's 10 times higher than the rate in Australia, Austria, Israel, Japan and Spain. That's why that number was so widely reported on, because it was shocking. And now that this new study is putting that number much lower, it's throwing into question what the true scale of the problem really is.

SIMON: What does the CDC say in response?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: CDC initially declined to review the study and provide comment when I asked them earlier in the week. But after my story was first published, a spokesperson sent me a statement saying that CDC, quote, "disagrees with the findings." They assert that the methods undercount the number of deaths that should be included, but CDC declined to make someone available for an interview.

SIMON: What kind of overall reaction has there been to this study?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I've been talking to physicians about this new data all week, and I find that they're not as surprised as maybe you or I. First of all, a rate of 10 per 100,000 is still worse than a lot of other wealthy countries, so it's not exactly something to crow about.

And also, regardless of whether the rate is 10 or 30 or something in between, Black patients are still three times more likely than white patients to die. And one OB I spoke with this week called that just plain scary. And, big picture, most of these deaths are preventable. So, you know, the doctors I was speaking with were emphasizing that more needs to be done to bring these numbers down.

SIMON: What might we take away from this data?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, one takeaway is that getting this right is complicated. It can be really hard to assess when someone dies whether pregnancy or childbirth played a role, let alone capture that on a form like a death certificate.

And the other thing to note here is that the most recent data that we're talking about is from 2021, and reproductive care has changed a lot since then in this country. There's a lot of concern that new abortion restrictions are going to affect maternal mortality. So getting this data right matters. The public needs to understand what the true scale of the problem is in order to address it.

SIMON: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thank you so much for being with us.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "PENTHOUSE CLOUD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.

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