In the 1950s, when reporting maternal deaths became more formalised, an estimated 69 women died for every 100,000 live births in England and Wales. Today, the World Bank estimates that this has fallen to nine deaths. According to the latest statistics, the average number of maternal deaths in the UK between 2013 and 2015 was 67 a year, compared with about 233 a year between 1967 and 1969.
These figures do not provide a direct comparison, not least because Scotland and Northern Ireland were not included 60 years ago. But they do show progress.
While better reporting of maternal deaths allowed the causes to be understood and action to be taken to avoid them, there were three key elements that helped Britain make firm strides in tackling the issue.
The first was the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. More women began giving birth in hospitals with trained healthcare professionals and close monitoring. Today, women have regular appointments with midwives, get advice on nutrition and health, and can have their babies screened for diseases before birth.
Next came improvements in women’s education, and the availability of family planning – particularly the pill, which, although sometimes reluctantly prescribed by GPs, was made available on the NHS. In 1974, family planning clinics began distributing the pill to single women.The 1967 abortion law, which allowed abortion in certain circumstances in England, Scotland and Wales, also helped, as it prevented women from seeking unsafe abortions.
The third element was better training and recognition of healthcare professionals, particularly the certified training of midwives.
However, the UK is currently experiencing a serious shortage in healthcare professionals, including midwives. The Royal College of Midwives said the profession had a shortage of more than 3,000 people. In August, the Guardian reported that half of all maternity units in England were closed to expecting women at least once last year.