Government must act on ‘appalling’ disparities in maternal deaths

Maternity staff shortages, lack of resources and missing ethnicity data are contributing toward appalling disparities in maternal deaths, a new report from the Women and Equalities Committee has found.

Black women are almost 4 times more likely to die in or shortly after childbirth than White women, and data released last year shows that maternal death rates in deprived areas are on the rise. Women in the UK’s most deprived areas are 2.5 times more likely to die than those in the least deprived areas.  

Data also shows that Black, Asian and mixed heritage women are more likely to experience pregnancy complications and baby loss and generally have poorer maternity experiences.  

At Tommy’s we’re backing the Committee’s calls for urgent action: the Government must set a firm target to end these disparities. 

In the report, MPs say that recent and ongoing Government and NHS measures to address the disparity in maternal deaths are “insufficient”.  

The report: 

  • Raises concerns that the Government and NHS leadership have underestimated the extent to which racism plays a role in the huge disparity in maternal deaths.  

  • Highlights maternity staffing shortages as a barrier to tackling inequity and implementing safety measures such as ‘continuity of carer’. 

  • Argues for an annual increase of £200-350 million to properly resource maternity units. 

  • Is critical of the Government’s handling of the taskforce it set up to tackle disparities in maternity care and calls for a renewed commitment to working with partners – including the Maternity Consortium, of which Tommy’s is a member – and progressing toward the taskforce’s aims. 

  • Highlights how missing and poor data collection by the NHS on ethnicity continues to be a challenge, as does the continued underrepresentation of Black women and birthing people in research. 

Our Chief Executive Kath Abrahams says:  

“It’s unacceptable that Black women remain at a much higher risk of dying through childbirth than White women and the Government must tackle these disparities urgently.

"Research shows that Black and Black mixed heritage women and pregnant people's concerns are not being listened to or acted upon, and they face systemic and institutional racism that means they have some of the worst pregnancy experiences. The voices of minoritised ethnic women and birthing people are consistently missing from the record and there is a pressing need for change to improve their care. 

“Tommy’s is committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to give birth – for all – and we’re demanding that the Government urgently reviews its approach to maternity safety. The data consistently show the quality of care given to pregnant women and people in the UK is not improving and serious inequities show no sign of reducing.  

“The results of a shortage of midwives and nurses and overstretched maternity services within an overstretched NHS are clear: more women and more babies are dying and many of these deaths are preventable.”   

Alongside worsening maternal safety, last year the Office for National Statistics confirmed that for the first time in 7 years, stillbirth rates in England and Wales increased. We also know that Black mothers are much more likely to experience miscarriage and stillbirth than White mothers and that gap increased between 2020 and 2021

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, said:  

“Government must be more ambitious and set a national target to end disparities. It is frankly shameful that we have known about these disparities for at least twenty years. It cannot take another twenty to resolve.”