Although 2019's Black Maternal Health Week, an annual campaign spearheaded by the organization Black Mamas Matter, is almost over, these alarming facts about the Black maternal health crisis make it clear that this elevated time of awareness should happen year-round. Between April 11 and April 17, Black Maternal Health Week has ignited a necessary conversation about Black maternal health, aiming to amplify policy and research to improve maternal health care and center the voices of Black mothers and families who have experienced the scares of the nation’s high maternal mortality rate.
An increasing number of women of color have opened up about their eye-opening experiences, such as Serena Williams. When the tennis pro opened up about her traumatic childbirth story that included blood clots, a burst C-section, and dismissive medical care providers in an essay for CNN, her harrowing account shed light on the ongoing crisis of poor maternal health care in the United States that disproportionately affects black women.
Williams' medical staff was not only unprepared despite her known history of clotting, according to her account shared in Vogue, but was also dismissive when she expressed her symptoms and concern about her worsening health. For the world, Williams' subpar treatment highlighted what many women have already experienced first hand: the country’s broken maternal health care system that unfairly treats Black women.
Black Maternal Health Week is meant to tackle this disparity, and even though the week is coming to a close, it is important to carry on the conversation with these facts in mind.
The U.S.' High Maternal Mortality Rate Disproportionately Affects Black Women
The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with approximately 700 women dying every year as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. This phenomenon, however, adversely affects Black women.
According to research published in Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2018, Black women are three to four times more likely to die in a pregnancy-related death versus their white counterparts. As Vox reported, Black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die as a result of pregnancy or birthing complications. Black women are also twice as likely to lose an infant to premature death.
Black Women Are More Likely To Receive Subpar Treatment Regardless Of Socioeconomic Background
The racial disparity and adverse affects of the Black maternal health crisis are not limited by social or economic background.
Factors that usually explain health disparities between different communities — such as socioeconomic status, access to prenatal care, education level, and general physical health — are not the root cause in this case, according to the Center for American Progress. Instead, according to the National Institute for Children's Health Quality, the disparity can be attributive to the cumulative effects of racism on maternal and infant health.
Most Maternal Deaths Are Preventable
In 2017, a collaborative in-depth look at maternal mortality by ProPublica and NPR showed that many of the deaths resulting from pregnancy or birth complications are actually preventable. "These numbers are really high, and far too many of them are preventable," Dr. Elliot Main, medical director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, told ProPublica.
According to the collaborative reporting, "Black women experience life-threatening pregnancy and childbirth complications at much higher rates than white or Hispanic women," which is partly due to "higher rates of chronic disease and prolonged stress." And as National Women's Law Center reported, research has shown evidence of racism in health care, which in turn "disproportionately effects the quality of care mothers receive during childbirth."
Black Maternal Morbidity May Be Made Worse By Doctors' Implicit Bias
A University of Virginia study from 2016 showed that racial biases exist even in the doctor’s office. According to the research, when Kelly Hoffman, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the time of the study, asked 222 white medical students and residents to evaluate and treat mock cases, she found that participants of the study harbored prejudice affecting their treatment plans.
According to the study, half of the participating UVA medical students believed myths including Black people have less sensitive nerve endings, have thicker skin, are able to tolerate more pain, and age slower than white people.
"Evidence points to implicit bias as one of the causes for the wide disparities seen between Black women’s maternal mortality numbers and other ethnicity groups," Sen. Holly Mitchell, a California lawmaker and vocal advocate for racial equality, previously told Romper. She pointed to the troubling UVA study as an indication that implicit racial bias often has an adverse effect on Black maternal health.
National Change May Finally Be Underway
In lieu of this national health crisis, national lawmakers have launched a caucus to tackle the challenge head-on. Just last week, Democratic lawmakers Reps. Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams introduced the Black Maternal Health Caucus created to address racial disparities in maternal health care. The caucus aims to elevate Black maternal health as a national priority and bring Congressional attention to the issue with eventual policy change.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also supported the caucus, saying at a press conference marking the its launch, "We cannot and must not accept this. We need to do more at every level — federal, state, local — to ensure that such disparities in maternal health are eliminated."
With the cause amplified by the honesty of celebrities like Serena Williams and Beyonce, the concern surrounding Black maternal health may finally be gaining a national spotlight that could finally lead to real change. Although Black Maternal Health Week is coming to a close, you can and should continue to advocate for equality in perinatal care with these facts in mind.