Advocates shine a light on the maternal health crisis killing Black women
There’s a crisis going on right before our eyes and a small group of Black women who are working to make sure the public is aware and motivated to act.
Black women are dying in childbirth in the United States at numbers so much higher than other groups and countries that even the United Nations has started to pay attention. At this year’s Essence Music Festival in in New Orleans, maternal health activists Latham Thomas, Joia Crear Perry, Stacey Stewart, and Kimberly Seals Allers came together to unpack issues of birth equity and the maternal health crisis facing Black women. The conversation was so well received, the ladies have taken their message on the road to the Big Apple (with possible additional cities to come) and shared with theGrio even more information and perspective about this imminent health predicament.
“Black women are quickly becoming an endangered species,” warned organizer Latham Thomas, a certified doula and founder of Mama Glow services, which supports mothers and would-be moms before, during and after the birthing process.
Federal data shows that Black women account for 57 percent of maternal deaths compared to 6 percent for white women; Black women account for 22 percent of live births compared to 30 percent of white women.
The discrepancy is even higher In New York City, where local government statistics indicate Black maternal deaths compared to white maternal deaths are 12 to 1.
“Twelve to one is indicative of the wealth of this city,” said panelist Joia Crear Perry, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist who is founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative.
Gentrification is shifting the dynamic of the entire Greater New York area. “You’re seeing a difference in treatment,” said Crear Perry.
The physician and advocate said the numbers are stark and disturbing, particularly for a country as wealthy as the United States. It’s enough for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty to write: “The United States has the highest infant mortality ratio among wealthy countries, and Black women are three to four times more likely to die than white women.”
A high-profile example
In January, tennis star Serena Williams brought attention to this ongoing problem after revealing that during the birth of her daughter in September, she experienced trouble breathing and warned the medical staff that she was prone to blood clots. Williams asked that she receive a CT scan and blood thinner. The hospital suggested that the pain medication was confusing her and instead performed an ultrasound on her legs. When the hospital finally performed a CT scan, it showed blood clots in her lungs – a condition that can be fatal.
Still, the celebrity attention raised by Williams’ case was not enough to create systematic change.
The panelists stressed that more studies on the disparities of Black maternal health and media attention are necessary, including a look into how Black patients are cared for and even how Black doctors and other medical professionals are treated. Additional factors include the phenomenon of “weathering,” or the daily toil of managing race-related stress and its impact over decades, and even the way Black people view motherhood.
“When you don’t value Black people, then it translates to their health outcomes,” said Crear Perry. “Surviving in this country as a Black woman, you’ve got to know that you’re going to be under constant attack.”
Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, spoke of growing up in Atlanta as the daughter of a physician father and pharmacist mother. She recalled spending her summers cleaning out her father’s files on his patients – many of them women who relied on Medicaid and Medicare – and seeing a commonality that eventually helped her realize that the stress of racism has real consequences.
“I just repeatedly kept seeing: anxiety, anxiety, anxiety,” warns Stewart, who is the first Black president of the March of Dimes. “It was just the first time that I understood the impact of stress and anxiety, especially on African-American women.”
Of racism and discrimination, Stewart explained, “They wear on us. They weather our bodies in such a way that our health” is affected.”
This kind of stress likely has a direct effect on maternal deaths, she contends, pointing out that 500,000 babies are born “too sick and too soon,” which causes lifelong developmental, cognitive and other disabilities. Some try to blame this on genetics, but Stewart believes if that were the case, the numbers for Black people would be even more stark.
Author and mothers’ advocate Kimberly Seals Allers believes a systemic issue affecting the crisis is that the traditions of Black motherhood have been disrupted.
“Historically, we know that Black women have always been birthers and feeders,” said Seals Allers.
That tradition took a left turn during the era of slavery when Black mothers were made to nurse the white children of their masters and, in doing so, often had to neglect their own children. According to Seals Allers, fewer Black women nurse their babies today and many are dependent on manufactured formula. This “disruption” of Black motherhood has had a systemic effect through the generations in Black maternal and infant health.
“We have to reclaim that narrative,” said Seals Allers. “The fact that we are breastfeeding the least is contributing to a high infant mortality rate.”
Changing the law
Crear Perry is among a group of advocates pushing federal legislation that would fund and call for further studies on why this is happening to American women.
In the Senate, the Maternal Health Accountability Act of 2017 has been introduced by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota. It calls for the federal government to award grants to states to review maternal deaths and require these states to come up with a mitigation plan. It’s been placed on the Senate legislative calendar. In the House, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017 has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington state, and will be being reviewed by the Subcommittee on Health.
Melanie Eversley is an award-winning journalist based in NYC.