The Black Maternal Health Disparity is Real—This is How to Support Change
The Black Maternal Health Disparity is Real—This is How to Support Change
September 14, 2021

The Black Maternal Health Disparity is Real—This is How to Support Change

The Black Maternal Health Disparity is Real—This is How to Support Change.
The Black Maternal Health Disparity is Real—This is How to Support Change

Carrying a pregnancy and delivering a baby can be such an exciting time. But the truth is, pregnancy can come with some potential health risks. And, according to data provided by the CDC, it’s significantly more risky to get pregnant and give birth if you’re Black or Native American than if you’re white, Asian, or Hispanic.

As explained by Linda Villarosa for The New York Times: “The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality is now worse than it was 25 years ago. Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts, according to the C.D.C. — a disproportionate rate that is higher than that of Mexico, where nearly half the population lives in poverty — and as with infants, the high numbers for Black women drive the national numbers.”

Black moms are also at a higher risk for what’s known as severe maternal morbidity—that’s an unexpected outcome of labor or delivery, like needing a blood transfusion or requiring a hysterectomy, that leads to short-term or long-term health issues. Tragically, Black moms are also much more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications—even though those deaths are relatively rare and largely preventable (over 60 percent are preventable, according to the CDC).

__So, why’s this happening and what can we do? __

The truth is that so many different factors play into these statistics. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, maternal health outcomes can be related to everything from a family’s income and access to stable housing, to stress levels and community support systems. As more people become aware of our maternal health statistics and how race plays into them, experts say there’s an ever-growing push to make meaningful changes in both health care and legislation to ensure that families get the care they deserve.

In the wider scheme of things, we can help support systemic changes aimed at reducing preventable pregnancy-related tragedies. We can show support for relevant legislation, like acts that push for more families to have health insurance coverage, time off from work and safe public transportation to attend medical appointments.

Another key component? Empowering parents and communities through pregnancy education, and encouraging pregnant folks to speak up for themselves.

“I always tell moms to advocate for themselves by learning, every single day that they’re pregnant,” says Billie Hamilton-Powell, a mobile bus clinic midwife working with Better Starts for All in Washington, DC. The organization works to reach families living in maternity care deserts—places where there’s no or low access to maternity health services.

“People think that they don’t need childbirth education,” Hamilton-Powell says. “As a midwife—I needed childbirth education! Black women need to prepare their bodies and need to be aware that they are at a higher risk for many pregnancy-related diseases or conditions. Education is a piece here—the more educated and prepared you are, the better.”

But this doesn’t account for the issue at large.

According to racial disparity studies conducted by the Brookings Institution, “Babies born to well educated, middle-class black mothers are more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to poor white mothers with less than a high school education.” Black women’s high risk of pregnancy-related death spans all income and education levels.

So, if a Black woman has the money to afford quality health care and is educated enough to know how to advocate for herself, then what’s the problem?

The one factor that remains the same is race.

“Actual institutional and structural racism has a big bearing on our patients’ lives, and it’s our responsibility to talk about that more than just saying that it’s a problem,” says Dr. Sanithia L. Williams, an African-American OB-GYN in the Bay Area and a fellow with the nonprofit organization Physicians for Reproductive Health says to The New York Times. “That has been the missing piece, I think, for a long time in medicine.”

__Support organizations working for Black birth justice. __

The National Association to Advance Black Birth (The NAABB) advocates for both Black mothers and infants healthcare through research, advocacy, activism and policy change, educational programming, and more. They also work within the actual healthcare system with doulas, nurses, doctors, and midwives to equip them with the tools necessary to provide the appropriate support for Black women.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) focuses their support on all pregnant women, but they focus primarily on supporting pregnant Women of Color and low-income women. They provide free legal assistance to pregnant and parenting women, as well as create educational programs and outreach.

National Birth Equity Collaborative (NBEC) creates global solutions that optimize Black maternal, infant, sexual, and reproductive wellbeing. Their goal is to shift systems and culture through training, research, technical assistance, policy, advocacy, and community-centered collaboration.

Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance. We center Black mamas to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice.

Nina Bahadur is a writer and editor focused on maternal health, racial disparities and health care access. She loves crosswords, long walks and exploring NYC with her rescue dog.

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