Background:The 1998 public awareness campaign on Safe Motherhood called attention to the issue of maternal mortality worldwide. This paper focuses upon maternal mortality trends in the United States and Canada, and examines differentials in maternal mortality in the United States by maternal characteristics. Methods:Data from the vital statistics systems of the United States and Canada were used in the analysis. Both systems identify maternal deaths using the definition of the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases. Numbers of deaths, maternal mortality rates, and confidence intervals for the rates are shown in the paper. Results:Maternal mortality declined for much of the century in both countries, but the rates have not changed substantially between 1982 and 1997. In this period the maternal mortality levels were lower in Canada than in the United States. Maternal mortality rates vary by maternal characteristics, especially maternal age and race. Conclusions:Maternal mortality continues to be an issue in developed countries, such as the United States and Canada. Maternal mortality rates have been stable recently, despite evidence that many maternal deaths continue to be preventable. Additional investment is needed to realize further improvements in maternal mortality.