The attacks on Black maternal health go far beyond Roe

OPINION: The consequences of police violence reach far beyond those directly assaulted. As recent studies show, there is a link between living in areas with fatal police violence and preterm birth and pregnancy loss in Black women.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Since the recent leak of a draft of the Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade, news outlets have given increased attention to maternal health. The overturning of Roe would be disastrous. But the attacks on Black maternal health go far beyond Roe.

I remember the horror I felt 10 years ago when I heard the news: Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black child from Miami Gardens, Fla., was killed by a neighborhood vigilante. I was terrorized a year and a half later when his killer was acquitted. It was a clear reminder that our criminal legal system sanctions the murder of Black people, even kids.

As I witnessed that verdict in real time, I rubbed my pregnant belly, which was carrying two Black boys, thanks to a longed-for IVF pregnancy. I was 21 weeks and three days in, at the moment when you feel flutters. Our twins fluttered the most when my wife cooed the song “Shoo Fly” to them. This verdict confirmed my worst fears as a Black parent: I could not keep these Black boys growing inside me safe.

I started to bleed hours after I learned that Trayvon’s killer walked. I later learned that the rhythmic pain in my back meant labor. I was left in the waiting room for what felt like an eternity: my anguish ignored until blood started pouring from my body, echoing the experiences of countless Black women that have contributed to the staggering Black maternal mortality rate.  Within an hour, I gave birth to our tiny boys, born too early to survive.

There is no way to know whether our loss was directly caused by the torment I felt as I watched our legal system sanction Trayvon’s murder. What I know for sure is the fear I experienced is collectively felt by Black parents in the U.S.: What happened to Trayvon could just as easily happen to our children.

The consequences of police violence reach far beyond those directly assaulted. It is no wonder recent studies show that there is a link between living in areas with fatal police violence and preterm birth and pregnancy loss. Fears and worries about police violence are linked to distress and depression among adults in general and among pregnant Black mothers in particular. The ancient terror of police violence scorches underneath our skin.

Systemic racism kills Black people quickly and slowly. Quick killings are the kind with which we are most familiar. The 1964 police killing of 15-year-old James Powell in Harlem just weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. The fatal police shooting on July 4, 2016 of unarmed 37-year-old Delrawn Small by an off-duty NYPD officer in Brooklyn, in full view of his baby, stepdaughter and girlfriend. The 2019 police killing of 32-year-old Kawaski Trawick seconds after they broke into his apartment while he was cooking. Police killings of Black people are not new, and they also are not slowing down. 2021, the year after the murder of George Floyd, set a record in the number of police killings.

Slow killings, in contrast, erode our health over time. The chronic stress of trying to live a fully realized life in a context of unrelenting anti-Blackness wears on our bodies. We see this most clearly in the premature deaths of those who have lost loved ones to racist violence like 63-year-old Venida Browder, mother to Kalief, and 27-year-old Erica Garner, daughter of Eric. They can occur more slowly still for those of us experiencing the violence indirectly, through the news or social media. The metastasizing knowledge and fear that it could have been your child or spouse eat at you, developing into depression or anxiety.

The American Public Health Association recognizes that structural racism is a public health crisis. Over the 20th century in the United States, there were 7.7 million deaths of Black people that would not have happened when they did if Black and white people died at the same rate.

We can’t bring back any of the lives we’ve needlessly lost, including our twins and all the others whose lives have been impacted by this climate, but we can demand that our elected officials finally decide to make policy decisions that affirm rather than annihilate Black life. We must protect Roe, of course. And we must do much more than that to guarantee health for Black people. 

Our elected officials must finally make the dramatic investments in Black futures upon which our health depends and divest from the immeasurable harms caused by the criminal legal system. We can begin to extinguish the smoldering and freshly burning forms of state violence by investing in Black life and safety from police and other forms of state violence. No more platitudes. We need investments that illustrate that Black lives matter.

Dr. Rahwa Haile is the senior research adviser for the Brooklyn Movement Center and an associate professor of public health at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.

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