Just days after the Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health and overturned Roe v. Wade, new research from CU Boulder‘s Institute of Behavioral Science has shown that a national abortion ban would cause a 24% overall increase in maternal mortality — a higher rate of pregnancy-related deaths than previously feared.
The new research, based on newly available 2020 data, projects a higher maternal mortality rate compared with previous data from 2017, which forecast a 21% increase in maternal deaths overall.
“The number of abortions had gone up and the rate of maternal death had gone up (from 2017 to 2020), so it would make sense then that the number of additional deaths would be higher,” said Amanda Stevenson, an assistant professor of sociology at CU Boulder and the lead author of the study. “That’s more people being forced to remain pregnant and more people being exposed to a risk of dying because of that.”
The latest CU Boulder study focused on how terminating a pregnancy impacts death rates in expectant mothers, given that maternal mortality is much lower for pregnant people who get abortions compared with those who carry their pregnancies to term. From 2013 to 2018, the CDC estimated there were 0.41 deaths per 100,000 legal abortions, but in 2020, the maternal death rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births.
In the U.S., Stevenson said, staying pregnant and birthing a child is more dangerous than it is in other wealthy countries, particularly for pregnant people of color.
“Our (maternal death) rates for all groups are higher than other countries. But our inequality in the rate of maternal death is truly shocking,” Stevenson said. “The rate of maternal death for non-Hispanic Black and American Indian women is two to three times higher than women from other groups. This tells us that a great deal of the very high rates in the U.S. is caused by social inequality, specifically racism.”
The CU study projected that a nationwide abortion ban would disproportionately impact Black pregnant people, estimating a 39% increase in mortality for Black mothers (older data had predicted a 33% higher death rate for this group).
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights’ website, abortion bans especially harm groups of people who already experience “discrimination and disparate health outcomes — especially Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, young people, and people living on low incomes.” Stevenson spoke of research showing that Black women, women of color and poor women often have trouble accessing health care or are treated poorly when they do seek care.
“There’s a problem where racism has entered — is built into all parts of American life, and health care provision is part of American life. It’s not surprising that it’s getting worse, because inequality in the U.S. has been getting worse.”
The CU researchers predicted a nationwide abortion ban would affect different states in varying ways depending on their existing abortion policies and maternal death rates. If no abortions had been allowed in 2020 in the 26 states that have outlawed or indicated they plan to outlaw abortion, the researchers estimated that there collectively would have been 64 more pregnancy-related deaths that year in those states.
Now, with Roe v. Wade’s protections gone, Stevenson stressed the need to focus on two things: helping people in areas without abortion access get the care they need and making pregnancy safer.
“The first thing we can do is help people get the abortions they need,” she said. “Help people get from places where abortion is banned to places where they’re legal. But the other thing is we can reform the way we treat pregnant people in this country. Racism is influencing a lot of these inequalities. Sexism is influencing a lot of these inequalities. We have to address the way those systems of stratification are embedded in our society.”
“Nobody should die because they’re pregnant.”