The medical community is sounding the alarm about the staggering rates of Black women dying due to complications related to pregnancy and delivery. The overall maternal mortality rate among America women is shocking. Even though America is one of the most economically advanced countries in the world with one of the highest standards of living, we also have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality. According to data reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the only industrialized nation with a higher rate of women dying due to pregnancy or delivery is Mexico.
While those statistics are bad enough, they get even worse. The overwhelming majority of American women who suffer pregnancy related deaths are Black women. These are our sisters, our aunts, our cousins, our colleagues, our friends. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black women die at three to four times the rate of White women. That means that a Black women is 300 percent more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than her White counterpart. This is a catastrophe for our community.
Although this is a national issue, it is critical in Texas. Black women in Texas represent 28.8% of pregnancy related deaths even though they only account for 11.4% of pregnancies/ births. It should be noted that Texas is also the state with the highest percentage of uninsured women. This means that Texas has the highest number of women who may not have access to early pre-natal care, post-partum care, or treatment for pre-existing conditions.
Faced with such shocking statistics, the researchers are attempting to discover the cause of this striking disparity. So far they have concluded that there are multiple contributing factors. Their research suggests that many Black women enter pregnancy with pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which increase the risk of complications. They also indicate that many Black women experience daily stress related to poverty and systemic racism that can negatively affect physical health.
While these findings are unsettling, the most disturbing revelation is the depth of implicit and unconscious bias that is embedded in the medical profession. Black women report that they are routinely spoken down to and that their complaints of pain or of feeling unwell are minimized or outright ignored. Black women have also been on the receiving end of unprofessional and inappropriate comments like, “You’re pregnant again?”
These disparities in treatment and the lack of empathy that many White medical professionals have for Black patients are not new. Racism is deeply entrenched within the medical profession. The history of gynecological medicine itself is founded on the worst kind of racism and white supremacy. In the 19th century, Dr. James Marion Sims, who is known as the “father of modern gynecology” used enslaved Black women as guinea pigs. He performed invasive procedures (including surgeries and experiments) on Black women without anesthesia because there was a common belief at the time that Black people didn’t feel pain. Remnants of that belief are still present in society. So, what we see today in the disparate and dismissive treatment of Black women seeking medical care, is just a watered down version of what our foremothers endured. No matter where you look in this country, if you want to see it, race based inequality is there.
Obviously, white doctors and nurses need to do better; they must acknowledge and actively work to dismantle unconscious biases that have been passed down and learned from generation to generation. But I’m not about to wait for them to do better…it always seems to take too long. So in the meantime, let’s find ways to be better for ourselves and for one another. One area where we can try to improve is in our daily habits. We can try to maintain healthy lifestyles that include fitness plans so that we aren’t already burdened with obesity, diabetes, or high blood pressure when we become pregnant. Another long-term goal should be increasing the number of Black people represented in the medical profession as doctors and nurses, as well as doulas and midwives. Finally, we can prepare to advocate as best we can for ourselves and our loved ones by keeping track of our medical histories, maintaining medical documentation and paperwork, seeking a second opinion when possible and not being afraid to ask questions. Let’s work together to make sure that giving birth is a beautiful blessing instead of a dangerous risk.
By Nicci Page
Nicci is a writer, an inspirational speaker, and a content creator.
Follow her on IG and Twitter @realglowandflow and on-line at www.realglowandflow.com
The Quiet Crisis Among African Americans: Pregnancy and Childbirth Are Killing Women at Inexplicable Rates (http://beta.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-na-texas-black-maternal-mortality-2017-htmlstory.html)
Nothing Protects Black Women from Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth (https://www.propublica.org/article/nothing-protects-black-women-from-dying-in-pregnancy-and-childbirth)
The “Father of Modern Gynecology” Performed Shocking Experiments on Slave (http://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves)