Black maternal health is a crisis and we must take action

It’s time to deepen our understanding of deep inequities

(Image by Salman Metobo/via Pixabay)

The COVID-19 pandemic has tragically demonstrated the lethality of race-based health and health care disparities in the United States. Maternal mortality is another area that highlights a gaping disparity in outcomes in the U.S.

April 11-17 marks Black Maternal Health Week, founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. It’s a week of awareness and activism designed to deepen our understanding of the deep inequities around Black maternal health, to center the voices of Black Mamas and Black leaders, and to provide a national platform for Black voices to lead the effort to find community-driven policies and solutions.

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In a study of the United States and 10 other high-income Western countries including Canada and the U.K., women in the U.S. were determined to be most likely to suffer pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths. The numbers are particularly dire for Black and other women of color.

I’ll be leading a webinar on Monday with Colorado Black Women for Political Action’s Tamra Debrady to educate and elevate the discussion about Black maternal health. We’ve all heard the stories of how Beyonce and Serena Williams, two powerful women for whom money and health insurance pose no barriers, each suffered a life-threatening maternal health trauma. If it can happen to them it can — and is — happening to Black women around the country.

“Black women are 2 to 4 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.”

A few facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources: Every year, nearly 700 women die in the U.S. as a result of pregnancy or its complications. According to the CDC, Black women are 2 to 4 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Black women over the age of 30 are 4 to 5 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Furthermore, per the CDC, the pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women with a college degree or higher is five times that of white women with similar education.

Additionally, women of color are more likely to experience postpartum mental illness but are less likely to receive treatment. Black women are more likely to live in states considered hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights. And according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women are less likely to have health insurance, especially in the South — 16% of Black women in the South do not have health insurance.

And not surprisingly, women of color are more likely to experience mistreatment or disrespect in maternity care than white women.

The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, sponsored by Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill) and Alma Adams (D-NC), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and others, attempts to address many of these health disparities. Among other things it will provide funding to community-based organizations working to improve maternal health outcomes and promote equity; grow and diversify the perinatal workforce to ensure that every mom in America receives quality maternal health care and support that are also culturally respectful; improve data collection and quality measures to better understand the causes of the maternal health crisis in the United States and inform solutions to address it; and provide care for moms with maternal mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

These are all concrete policy steps we can and must take to protect Black maternal health. But there is more: Health care professionals and others must listen to Black women and ask the right questions about their health. Black women know their bodies best, and the medical community must do a better job of paying attention to their voices. Even Serena Williams’ valid concerns were dismissed — and after her daughter’s birth, she had to endure emergency surgery and birth-related lung and abdominal complications.

Black Maternal Health week provides an opportunity to learn about and act to improve maternal health disparities. We must recognize the strengths of Black Mamas, Black communities, and Black health care professionals — their motherhood, scholarship, leadership, and research — if we hope to end the deepening maternal health crisis that, like COVID-19, has set the U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, sadly apart from other Western countries.

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