What causes maternal mortality?

Maternal mortality may be caused by a pregnancy complication, a chain of medical events started by the pregnancy, the worsening of an unrelated condition because of the pregnancy, or other factors.1

According to the World Health Organization, the following complications cause the majority of maternal deaths around the world2:

  • Severe bleeding (sometimes called hemorrhage)
  • Infections
  • Blood pressure disorders of pregnancy, including preeclampsia and eclampsia

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts national surveillance of pregnancy-related deaths. For more information on national trends and causes of maternal death, visit CDC: Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System.

The leading causes of maternal death in the United States (according to the CDC) are slightly different than the causes around the world. They include cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease and blockages in arteries and veins, and non-cardiovascular conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory problems.3

Certain factors are known to contribute to pregnancy complications. A high-risk pregnancy refers to a situation in which a mother, her fetus, or both are at higher risk for problems during pregnancy or delivery than in a typical pregnancy. This higher risk may result from existing health conditions, age, lifestyle factors, or other situations such as having twins or triplets. Having a high-risk pregnancy does not mean that a woman is going to die during pregnancy or childbirth. But it does provide an opportunity for healthcare providers to monitor and intervene.

In addition to high-risk pregnancy, NICHD provides information on many topics relevant to maternal mortality, including the following:


    1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2018). Pregnancy-related deaths. Retrieved January 3, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pregnancy-relatedmortality.htm
    2. World Health Organization. (2018). Maternal mortality. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/maternal-mortality 
    3. CDC. (2018). Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System. Retrieved January 30, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm
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