Bearing a child is still one of the most dangerous things a woman can do. It’s the sixth most common cause of death among women age 20 to 34 in the United States. If you look at the black-box warning on a packet of birth control pills, you’ll notice that at most ages the risk of death from taking the pills is less than if you don’t take them—that’s because they’re so good at preventing pregnancy, and pregnancy kills. The risk flips only after age 35 because birth control pills increase the risk of stroke. (Psst, guys, you know what makes an excellent 35th birthday present for your partner? Getting a vasectomy.)
In the United States today, about 15 women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s way too many, but a century ago it was more than 600 women per 100,000 births. In the 1600s and 1700s, the death rate was twice that: By some estimates, between 1 and 1.5 percent of women giving birth died. Note that the rate is per birth, so the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth was much higher, perhaps 4 percent.