The disturbing state of black maternal health in the U.S.

The disturbing state of black maternal health in the U.S.
May 11, 2018

As Mother’s Day approaches, we must recognize the disturbing state of black maternal health in the United States.

Last month, my daughter turned one. The moment is not lost on me. I know that I am fortunate because there are many black women who don’t live to see their newborn reach that milestone. And many other black women who don’t see their babies born at all.

As Mother’s Day approaches, it’s important to recognize the disturbing state of black maternal health in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health. A black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.

In the U.S., a black woman is 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than a white woman. 

In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition. Among all states and cities in the U.S., the District of Columbia has the highest maternal mortality rate.

Recent stories in national media, among them The Washington Post and New York Times Magazine, highlighted the dire statistics and stories about black women who have been near-death during pregnancy, as well as women who have lost their babies. Researchers cite systemic and institutional racism, pervasive racial bias in healthcare, and even the decades of inherent stress that comes with being a black woman in America for the deaths of black women and their babies. Stress may be particularly acute, as researchers note, because of the double jeopardy of gender and racial discrimination black women face.

Black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at about the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, the World Health Organization estimates.  

Even relatively well-off black women die and nearly die at higher rates than whites. New York City offers a startling example: A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black, college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.

And tennis great Serena Williams proved that affluence and influence don’t make a difference. She made headlines recently after speaking out about her health issues related to the birth of her baby girl. After experiencing complications, she shared her concerns with her medical team; they did nothing. Nothing. They didn’t believe her complaints about pain and shortness of breath. Until she ordered her own tests, paid for them, and proved that she was in medical crisis. Her life was saved. Other black ladies are not as fortunate.

While I’m not nearly as affluent or influential as Serena, I’m not in the lower income brackets either. Yet I know the birth of my daughter was nothing short of a miracle nonetheless. Research has indicated that black infants in America are now twice as likely to die as white infants—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850—15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.

I had a high-risk yet manageable pregnancy and delivery with my regular medical team that made me feel valued, comfortable, and safe. I was able to advocate for myself. I was able to demand that my blood pressure medications be delivered on time after I had my daughter. Not everyone has that. Not every black mom for sure.

So, while I celebrate Mother’s Day with my 1-year-old daughter, enjoying brunch with omelets and bacon, I know that there are mothers who won’t see this day. And the babies they love won’t either. 

Vickie Gogo, MA, APR is a Principal, Health Communications at ICF.

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