The US is failing Black mothers. In this article, we dive into the problem of Black maternal mortality, and what we can do to protect mothers.
By Natalist CEO Vernita Brown
There is a great imbalance in our healthcare system. While the U.S. has risen to the top as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, our healthcare system remains broken, divided by systemic barriers, racism, and economic inequality that has left many communities behind without access to proper medical care, preventative care, or health education. Amongst the many left behind in this corrupt system of health disparities are Black women, and particularly Black mothers.
Amongst the many left behind in this corrupt system of health disparities are Black women, and particularly Black mothers.
To put it into perspective, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women simply due to factors such as less access to prenatal care, lower quality maternal care, greater financial barriers or lack of insurance, higher rates of preventable diseases and chronic health conditions due to systemic socioeconomic barriers, as well as racial and sexual discrimination.
Racial disparities in maternal health outcomes
Racial disparities are evident in almost every study of maternal health outcomes, with startling inequities in maternal mortality and other complications that have severe long-term consequences for a woman’s health. The leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths are cardiovascular conditions and hypertensive disorders, including cardiomyopathy, pre-eclampsia, and eclampsia.
While death is obviously the most devastating result, it is not the only pregnancy-related outcome that disproportionately affects Black women. One study of severe maternal morbidity, which is defined as labor and delivery outcomes with significant short- or long-term consequences for a woman’s health, found that Black women are over two times more likely than white women to experience these types of complications. For every 100,000 live births, 43.5 Black women will die; and for every death there are around 70 severe maternal morbidity events.
For every 100,000 live births, 43.5 Black women will die; and for every death there are around 70 severe maternal morbidity events.
The causes of these disparities include a multitude of factors and are not just limited to healthcare at or around the time of pregnancy. In fact, a variety of socioeconomic and environmental factors are believed to be exacerbating these issues. Most pressing is the chronic stress associated with existing as a Black person in America and the long-term physiological effects that stress has on the body.
Breaking free from the statistics
While the fight to close the gap on Black maternal health disparities is an ongoing, uphill battle, a variety of incredible organizations have taken the lead to help leverage, support, and serve Black women in having the safe, healthy, supported pregnancies they deserve.
Birth Queen is rising up to fight the Black maternal health crisis by training and educating Black birth workers as well as supporting and empowering Black parents.
Black Mamas Matter Alliance is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance. They advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice.
The Blavatnik Family Women’s Health Research Institute exists to optimize the quality of care for women, and to narrow gaps in treatment and outcomes in underserved populations. Their research is transforming women’s health by advancing science, training the next generation of scientific leaders in women’s health, and promoting breakthroughs in clinical care.
Moms Rising Together tackles the most critical issues facing women, mothers, and families by educating the public and mobilizing massive grassroots actions in support of women and mothers on Capitol Hill, at state capitols across the country, and in the media.
NBEC creates solutions that optimize Black maternal and infant health through training, policy advocacy, research, and community-centered collaboration.
The Shades of Blue Project is dedicated to helping women of color before, during and after child-birth with community resources, mental health advocacy, treatment and support. Their vision is to change the way women of color are currently being diagnosed and treated surrounding the birthing experience.
The Sista Midwife mission is to improve pregnancy and birth experiences and to eliminate perinatal disparities by increasing the number of black birth workers, teaching families about their rights and options, and creating transparency and accountability within childbirth education and the medical obstetrical system.
SisterSong’s mission is to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights.
Steps we must take
There are three key steps our healthcare system can take to join these organizations in making true progress in maternal health outcomes.
1. Increase access to prenatal care
Compared to white women, Black women face more barriers to prenatal care and are more likely to be uninsured. ACOG recommends prenatal care visits begin in the first trimester to “identify risk factors and initiate preventive care measures”. But the percentage of mothers starting prenatal care in the first trimester varies by race and ethnicity: 82.3% for white women, 72% for Hispanic women, and 66.5% for Black women. Pregnant women who do not receive prenatal care are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than those who receive prenatal care.
Pregnant women who do not receive prenatal care are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than those who receive prenatal care.
2. Fight racism in the healthcare system
Fact is, systemic racism is pervasive in our healthcare system. And until providers and healthcare systems recognize and remedy implicit bias, health disparities will continue to plague Black mothers.
Women deserve high-quality, patient-centered care that’s tailored to a woman’s individualized medical and social needs. Providers must aim to remove any cultural, socioeconomic, or racial discrimination. Additionally, we must find, train, and empower providers (doctors, nurses, doulas, etc.) that look like the women they serve, who can deliver content and information tailored to the community’s needs versus a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach.
3. Educate communities about the warning signs
Pregnancy problems aren’t limited to nine months. In fact, complications can occur up to a year after delivery. There are warning signs that you should know -- so you can be an advocate for yourself and for your friends and family.
Seek medical care immediately if you experience any of these signs or symptoms, as they could indicate a life-threatening situation.
- Racial discrimination is prevelant in the US healthcare system, leaving Black mothers with inadequate health outcomes.
- Due to the racial discrepancy and lack of healthcare, Black women are three to four times more likely to experience pregnancy-related death than white women.
- Studies show that Black women are more than two times more likely to experience non-fatal but serious effects due to pregnancy complications.
- Systemic approaches are necessary to end racism in our healthcare system, but we can all do our parts individually too.
- The single most important investment is to fund options to improve access to prenatal care for Black women. There is a huge racial discrepancy in the percentage of Black women that are unable to get prenatal care compared to white women.
- Pregnancy complications aren’t confined only to the time you are physically pregnant. Symptoms can occur up to a year after delivery include dizziness, changes in vision, chest pain, overwhelming tiredness, and many more. Seek medical care immediately if you experience symptoms.
- To support Black women, Black mothers, and Black mothers-to-be, consider donating to a non-profit that supports and provides this community with necessities.