The Common Good

How To Make Childbirth Safer (Not By Spending More Money)

Baby being delivered by cesarean, Martin Valigursky /
Baby being delivered by cesarean, Martin Valigursky /

"American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World" 

That's the headline of an article by Elisabeth Rosenthal in yesterday's New York Times. The article includes a chart comparing childbirth costs in seven countries. In the United States, the average amount paid for a conventional delivery in 2012 was $9,775; for a Caesarean section, it was $15,041. Those are the highest prices for childbirth anywhere in the world.

To get an idea of just how high, I made a chart using the figures in the NYT chart. Childbirth costs in the other six countries range from 21 percent to 43 percent of U.S. costs even though American women typically spend far less time in hospital.

South Africa is so dangerous for childbirth that its graph line would not fit on this blog page. For every 1,000 births, there are 56 infant deaths. For every 100,000 births, there are 400 maternal deaths. [Chart by L. Neff; data from WHO]

You'd think America's higher costs would mean that American women and infants get better care. Not at all.

"Despite its lavish spending," Rosenthal writes, "the United States has one of the highest rates of both infant and maternal death among industrialized nations." And among lots of other nations as well: according to the CIA's World Factbook, 50 countries have a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S., and 47 countries have a lower maternal mortality rate.

Here's some comparative data in graph form. The longer the line, the more dangerous the country is for mother and child.

South Africa is so dangerous for childbirth that its graph line would not fit on this blog page. For every 1,000 births, there are 56 infant deaths. For every 100,000 births, there are 400 maternal deaths. [Chart by L. Neff; data from WHO]

Rosenthal mentions one reason that high costs often do not translate into low death rates: "The fact that poor and uninsured women and those whose insurance does not cover childbirth have trouble getting or paying for prenatal care contributes to those figures." I decided to use the Gini Index — a scale that measures "the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income in a country" — to compare the seven countries in the NYT graph. Here are the results:

South Africa's red line is missing because for every 100,000 births in that country, there are 400 maternal deaths. The chart would have had to be six times wider to accommodate the data. [Chart by L. Neff; data from CIA and WHO]

Wow. I didn't expect the results to line up so neatly, but there you have it: The more inequality in a country's distribution of family income, the more mothers and babies die in childbirth. Of the 136 nations reported by the CIA, South Africa is #2 on the inequality list. Chile is #15, the United States is #41 (that means that 40 countries have less income equality than the U.S., while 95 countries have more). Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, at numbers 60, 101, 111, and 117 respectively, all have significantly more income equality than the U.S.

Number 136, the nation with the least inequality of all, is Sweden. Swedish infant and maternal mortality rates are even lower than Switzerland's — in spite of the fact that Sweden spends about 1/3 less per capita on healthcare.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

Main image: Baby being delivered by cesarean, Martin Valigursky /

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