Each year, worldwide, more than 500,000 women die of complications from childbirth, making this a leading cause of death globally for adult women of reproductive age. Nearly all studies that have sought to explain the persistence of high maternal mortality levels have focused on the supply of and demand for particular health services. We argue that inquiry on health services is useful but insufficient. Robust explanations for safe motherhood outcomes require examination of factors lying deeper in the causal chain. We compare the cases of Guatemala and Honduras to examine historical and structural influences on maternal mortality. Despite being a poorer country than Guatemala, Honduras has a superior safe motherhood record. We argue that four historical and structural factors stand behind this difference: Honduras's relatively stable and Guatemala's turbulent modern political history; the presence of a marginalized indigenous population in Guatemala, but not in Honduras, that the state has had difficulty reaching; a conservative Catholic Church that has played a larger role in Guatemala than Honduras in blocking priority for reproductive health; and more effective advocacy for maternal mortality reduction in Honduras than Guatemala in the face of this opposition.