The United States is almost sure to miss its year 2000 goal for reducing birth-related deaths among women, according to a government study that shows the death rate hasn't fallen in 15 years.

Every year from 1982 to 1996, there were seven or eight maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. It said half of all such deaths are preventable.Like infant mortality, maternal deaths are used as a measure of a country's overall health. In some developing nations, maternal death rates are as high as 1,700 per 100,000 births. In other countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, maternal deaths occur at about half the U.S. rate.

The CDC said the United States will probably fall short of its goal of 3.3 maternal deaths per 100,000 births by 2000.

"If you look at the whole world, our rate is pretty good," said Dr. Isabella Danel, a CDC epidemiologist. "But if you look at other developed countries, they're doing better."

Researchers said such deaths are rare enough that many doctors may not notice the problem. Also, many women now see pregnancy as risk-free and fail to seek prenatal care, Danel said.

The CDC identified maternal deaths by looking at death certificates. However, researchers said such deaths are underreported and the real rates could be three times higher.

More than half of maternal deaths are caused by bleeding, infection, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and tubal pregnancies - complications that can be prevented or treated with early diagnosis, the CDC said.

Many doctors have little experience handling life-threatening births, said Dr. James Gell, an obstetrician and gynecologist who teaches at Wayne State University Medical School in Detroit.

"The average obstetrician may never encounter a maternal death during a lifetime of practice," Gell said. "So, as a result, he may not be as well prepared for the sudden, calamitous situation when it does arrive."