Pregnant woman

A pregnant woman sits on a bed. (Photo: The Good Brigade/Getty Images/stock photo)

Poor Hit Hardest as 'Maternity Care Deserts' Grow Across US

Ohio, where Republicans imposed an abortion ban earlier this year, saw the biggest rise in the number of women who live in counties where they have no access to maternal healthcare.

A new study released Tuesday reveals that more than a third of U.S. counties are now considered "maternity care deserts," without any obstetric healthcare providers, hospitals, or birth centers--and states with proposed or current abortion bans are especially likely to have few resources for pregnant people.

"Our country is facing a unique and critical moment as the infant and maternal health crisis continues intensifying."

March of Dimes, which advocates for the health of pregnant people and babies, released the report, showing that since the group last analyzed maternal care deserts in the U.S. in 2020, 5% of counties "have less maternity access than just two years ago."

As many as 6.9 million women have little to no access to maternal healthcare, including 2.2 million women of childbearing age. Nearly 150,000 babies were negatively affected by a lack of practicing obstetricians, certified midwives, nurse midwives, hospitals, or birth centers.

Low income women are far more likely than middle- and high-income women to live in maternity care deserts, the report said:

The proportion of women living in counties below the national median household income is twice as high for maternity care deserts as it is in full access counties (90.1% and 45.2%, respectively).

The number of maternity care deserts in the U.S. has increased by 2% since 2020, with an additional 15,933 women facing a total lack of maternal healthcare in 1,119 counties.

Dr. Genevieve Eastabrook, an associate professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Western University in London, Ontario, said the report helps to explain why the U.S. "maternal mortality rate is so abysmal," with 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020.

As Stat Newsreported, the March of Dimes report shows that "maternity care deserts also appear to be found disproportionately in states that restrict abortion."

Ohio was found to be the state where "the most women [were] impacted by overall reductions in access to care" between 2020 and 2022, according to the report, with 97,000 women losing access. As women in the state have been stripped of access to maternal healthcare, Republican lawmakers have also attempted to ban abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy.

The ban went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and garnered nationwide attention when it forced a 10-year-old pregnant rape survivor to travel to Indiana to receive abortion care, in addition to causing "extreme duress" for women across the state according to court filings. A judge issued a preliminary injunction, indefinitely blocking the ban while litigation continues, last week.

"It seems ironic that you would both create a system where people were sometimes forced to remain pregnant and forced to give birth, and that in those very same places, there would be a disinvestment in the health care facilities to care for people having babies," Cindy Colen, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, told Stat News.

Counties across Texas, where abortion care is banned, were found to be maternal care deserts. A pregnant person in King County, Texas would have to travel nearly 70 miles to get to the closest county with maternity care providers.

The privatized, for-profit healthcare sector has driven more than 100 rural hospital closures in the past decade, making it more likely that pregnant patients in those areas will have to travel in order to deliver their babies.

"With an average of two women dying every day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth and two babies dying every hour, our country is facing a unique and critical moment as the infant and maternal health crisis continues intensifying," said Stacey D. Stewart, president and CEO of March of Dimes. "With hospital closures, inflation, and Covid-19 limiting access to care, the compounding issues of our time are bearing down on families, forcing them to extend themselves in new ways to find the care they need and ways to afford it."

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) called the report "deeply disturbing."

"America is the least safe place to give birth in the industrialized world," said the congresswoman, "particularly in states with abortion bans."

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