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2018 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Lost Mothers

About the Project

“Lost Mothers,” co-published by ProPublica and NPR, illuminated a national disgrace: The U.S., which spends more per capita on health care than any other country, also has the highest rate of women dying as a consequence of pregnancy and childbirth in the developed world.

While plenty of earlier reports had pointed to a startling rise in pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths over a 20-year period, when we employed the usual journalism tools – Nexis, Google – to identify women who had died, we turned up surprisingly few names. When a pregnant woman or new mother dies in the U.S., we discovered, she is almost invisible. Her identity is shrouded by medical institutions, regulators, and state maternal mortality review committees. Her loved ones mourn her loss in private.

Finding these women and telling their stories became the core of our “Lost Mothers” project. Led by Nina Martin of ProPublica and Renee Montagne of NPR, a team of reporters scoured crowdfunding sites and social media for leads, then used obituaries and Facebook to verify basic information and locate relatives and friends. We reached out to patient advocacy groups and posted a call-out for women’s stories. We also called out those culpable and made clear a way forward that would save lives and families too often destroyed by preventable – and heartbreaking – tragedies.

Since our series launched, we’ve heard from hundreds of health care providers, researchers, public health experts and patients who’ve shared our reporting in hopes of sparking change. A Texas lawmaker used our reporting as part of her effort to pass maternal mortality-related legislation this past summer. Lawmakers in New Jersey have introduced legislation to overhaul the state’s maternal mortality review process, while legislators in Pennsylvania have moved to create a maternal mortality review committee there for the first time.

Most of all, we are humbled to know our reporting has literally saved lives. At least three women told us they used our stories to self-diagnose life-threatening symptoms their providers would otherwise have overlooked. One of these women, Marie McCausland, then went on to persuade the University Hospital system in Cleveland, Ohio, to institute new ER and post-birth education policies that aim to improve care for thousands of women every year.