According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. Statistics like that are why Black Maternity Health Week exists.
Linda Villarosa penned a gripping feature for the New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a life or death crisis.” In it, she digs deep into statistics that illuminate the reasons behind the massive racial disparities when it comes to maternal and infant mortality rates.
She also follows the story of a New Orleans mom named Simone Landrum who is pregnant. Landrum’s tale of domestic violence, economic insecurity, and subpar medical attention is maddening. When her doctors literally refuse to acknowledge the levels of her pain, readers are reminded of Serena Williams‘ brush with death in the days following her delivery. Williams’ doctors did not listen to her at first either.
The bright spot in Landrum’s story is her doula Latona Giwa, a dedicated professional who serves as Landrum’s advocate among many other roles. Like many doulas who serve low-income communities, Giwa’s services are invaluable.
The chilling research Villarosa provides about Black maternal and infant mortality rates combined with Giwa’s presence, shed light on what’s wrong in America and one possible way to help fix it.
College Degrees Don’t Matter
Conventional wisdom used to be that high maternal and infant mortality rates were due to “young and dumb” teen mothers who did not have the wherewithal to acquire the necessary resources. Studies have proven that to be false for Black women. A study published in Population and Development Review noted that Black women in their mid-20s actually had higher rates of infant death than teenage girls.
Additionally, more education simply does not equal better outcomes. In fact, a Brookings Institution study showed that advanced degree-toting Black women are more likely to lose a baby than white women who never even got to eighth grade
Biased, Subpar Treatment from Healthcare Professionals
A 2016 University of Virginia study had shocking findings when it dove into why Black patients did not receive adequate pain treatment. Researchers found that white medical students and doctors believed outdated and even outlandish falsehoods about physiological differences between white and Black people. “For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white,” wrote Villarosa.
That study was not not limited to expectant mothers, but it certainly includes them. The experiences of Serena Williams, Simone Landrum, and countless other Black moms is a testament to that.
Toxic Racism and Sexism
“For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death,” writes Villarosa.
Dr. Arline Geronimus of the University of Michigan, calls this process “weathering.” Black women’s bodies are physically worn down due to the stress of everyday racism and sexism. Dr. Geronimus’ 2006 study found that “even when controlling for income and education, African-American women had the highest allostatic load scores — an algorithmic measurement of stress-associated body chemicals and their cumulative effect on the body’s systems — higher than white women and black men.”
In short, the stress of racism and sexism, physically alters Black women from the inside out, contributing to negative impacts on maternal and infant health.
Low Birth Weights
All of the stress experienced by Black mothers can impact the health and weight of the baby and low birth weight is one of the leading factors in infant death. A seminal study on race, class, and low birthweight found that babies born to Black college-educated parents were twice as likely to die as babies born to white parents of the same educational background. The study also found that low birth weight was the cause in 72 percent of the cases.
The Problem Has Gotten Worse
In the United States, the rate of maternal mortality is now worse than it was 25 years ago. There are 700-900 maternal deaths each year and as was previously stated, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to do from pregnancy or birth related complications.
Amazingly, the racial disparity between Black and white infant mortality is worse than it was during slavery. Villarosa writes, “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.”
Reasons to Hope
Statistics on Black maternal and infant mortality are bleak, but there is reason to hope. Where there are adequate support systems, resources, and perhaps most importantly accessible advocates, Black women and infants thrive
Programs that provide low cost or free doulas, midwives, classes, and basic needs are starting to see results. The mothers participating in the By My Side Birth Program in Brooklyn for example, have had half as many pre-term births and low birth weight babies as the community at large. Similarly, the Birthmark Doula Collective that helped Landrum in New Orleans, has an infant mortality rate that is lower than Louisiana and the United States. Numerous programs all over the country are doing the work of saving Black mothers and infants.