Pain, dismissed. Questions, silenced. Mother’s instincts, minimized.
Black women are dying in childbirth at rates exponentially higher than any other racial group in the United States with no signs of slowing down. A movement of black moms — doctors, writers, pro athletes, and activists — is now gaining strength and fighting back against the malignment of black women at their most vulnerable.
“It shows how little infrastructure and how little value we place on women and on black women specifically,” said Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, president and founder of the National Birth Equity Collaborative and a leading authority on maternal health. “It makes us have to fight.”
Black women are more than 220 percent more likely to die in childbirth, or soon after, than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while they don’t have a higher prevalence of serious pregnancy-related complications, such as pre-eclampsia, placenta previa, and postpartum hemorrhage, black women are two to three times more likely to die of these conditions than white women.
Black women have historically been treated as less reliable than other women when discussing symptoms and concerns, Crear-Perry said, and are less likely to receive needed pain medication, including epidurals.
The maternal mortality rate of black women has become an international health crisis, catching the eye of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. When it comes African-American maternal health, certain parts of the U.S. can even seem more like a third-world country than a world superpower. In Chickasaw County, Mississippi, more black women die of pregnancy complications than in Kenya or Rwanda, according to the 2014 report “Reproductive Injustice: Racial and Gender Discrimination in U.S. Health Care.”
“Other countries were looking at us saying, ‘How could you be this wealthy country … and your women are dying in childbirth, and black women are dying at rates higher than all these other countries that don’t have as much resources as you do?’” Crear-Perry said.
To that end, Crear-Perry created the National Birth Equity Collaborative to partner with major researchers, hospitals, and social justice advocates to change the narrative that envelops black mothers.
“The goal is: live in a world where black women not only survive, but thrive in childbirth,” she said. “Because you don’t want to say ‘Woo I barely made it, thank you Jesus.’”
She also sits on the advisory committee for the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a powerhouse organization that advocates for social and structural resources that will save lives, such as policies to promote racial equity and greater access to family planning and health initiatives for black women.
High profile cases, such as tennis superstar Serena Williams’ health crisis during the birth of her daughter, helped raise awareness on a national level, but the subjugation of pregnant black women began long before Williams detailed her near-death experience.
Shanon Lee of Washington D.C. has been using her platform as a writer and filmmaker to fight for better education and awareness of black maternal health since the birth of her daughter five years ago. She has penned several articles and essays about her experience with a dismissive doctor who she felt was trying to push her into optional tests late into her pregnancy, along with an unnecessary Cesarean section.
Lee, who had already given birth to two other children and was having a healthy and uneventful pregnancy, pushed back, asking the doctor questions and declining certain invasive tests.
“I wasn’t under any medical distress, my baby was doing great,” Lee said. “She said, ‘But it’s on you. If you want your baby to die, then fine.’”
Lee, who had experienced a miscarriage shortly before becoming pregnant with her daughter, was floored.
“I was really just angry more than anything else,” she said. “I said she’s definitely not going to be the one to deliver my baby.”
Lee fired her doctor and had the healthy, natural birth she wanted all along.
“Even when we do have access to resources, we’re not being heard. They’re not listening,” said Lee, who is also working on a multimedia project about black maternal mortality. “I have a platform and I’m fortunate to have that, so I definitely want to use it for good.”
Lee sees education as the place to start — education for women so they know their rights and education and sensitivity training for medical and hospital staff that interact with pregnant women.
“There has to continue to be money allocated to these issues because, historically, just women across the board, there’s a lack of funding when it comes to researching our health concerns. And that trickles down to women of color,” she said.
Crear-Perry is pushing for more states to expand Medicaid to get the most vulnerable women the health care they need, no matter their skin color. She’s also working with large research institutions in major cities to study black health. And she wants to create a metric for hospitals to evaluate providers based on how they treat patients.
“I have to remind myself,” she said, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”