Cynthia M. Allen

Bad data caused maternal mortality to skyrocket, not cuts to abortion clinics

According to the March of Dimes, as many as half of all pregnancies may end in miscarriage.
According to the March of Dimes, as many as half of all pregnancies may end in miscarriage. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texans may well remember the shocking 2016 study on maternal health and mortality that found the rate at which new mothers were dying in the Lone Star state to be alarmingly — almost unbelievably — high.

The study published in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology said that in 2012 Texas reported 147 women who died from pregnancy-related causes — a more than doubling over the previous year.

Indeed, the mortality rate was unmatched by any other state or nation in the world, rendering Texas a deadly place for new mothers, as national and local headlines were quick to report.

The study authors did not assign a cause for the sudden, puzzling increase in maternal deaths, but pro-choice abortion rights advocates were quick to offer an explanation of their own.

The rise in maternal deaths occurred just after the Texas Legislature reduced funding for family planning services and added new restrictions to abortion clinics. In the wake of the cuts, more than 80 clinics, many of which provided abortions, closed their doors.

"Women have been left out in the cold," said Sarah Wheat, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. She called these clinics a "gateway to the healthcare system" for many women and strongly implied their closings were responsible for the startling increase in maternal deaths.

Former state Sen. Wendy Davis joined the fray, railing against her former Republican colleagues, all but blaming them for the deaths of 600 Texas women between 2000-2014.

The Guardian's Jessica Valenti, an outspoken abortion rights proponent, was even more blunt. She boldly declared, "Politics is killing mothers in Texas."

To these observers the connection seemed easy or at least politically convenient.

And “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval," what other reasonable explanation could there be for the dramatic and sudden increase in maternal mortality rates?

Try the simple and even obvious one: The researchers were using bad data.

Last week, two years after the original study was released, the same medical journal published further analysis of maternal mortality rates in Texas over the same period of time and determined that the number of maternal deaths in Texas in 2012 was actually 56, about a third of the 147 initially reported.

The second study, conducted by the Texas Department of State Health Services, found that data coding errors in previous research misclassified a number of deceased women as pregnant. These were human errors, understandable and forgivable, but not without consequence.

In seeking to correct these statistics, the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force cross-referenced birth and death certificates and medical records for all 147 women whose 2012 deaths were attributed to pregnancy-related health issues.

They discovered instead that only 56 deaths fell under the definition of maternal mortality, not only a far smaller number, but one more in line with maternal mortality findings in other states.

Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are among the highest in the developed world for reasons that remain unclear. But Texas is hardly the outlier that it was once thought to be.

To their credit, the legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott prioritized maternal health after the release of the 2016 study, extending the mandate of the state's maternal health task force until 2023.

The task force is charged, among other things, with looking at the health disparities and racial and socioeconomic status of women. It seeks to equip health care providers with best practices and procedures for caring for pregnant women, and provide better solutions to help women with postpartum depression.

Improving the maternal health landscape and protecting new mothers should remain high priorities for the state, even in the wake of the corrected data.

But this latest study underscores the importance of accurate information in public policy making. And it should be a admonition to abortion rights advocates looking to draw hasty conclusions for political gain. But we'll have to manage our expectations on that score.