Updated: Apr 5, 2021
America is in the middle of a Black maternal health crisis. Here are six stories to read about it.
Vox’s Anna North details how COVID has worsened the pre-existing Black maternal mortality crisis in the United States, an illustration of the rippling health effects of the pandemic. Central to the Black maternal mortality crisis is the way in which Black women’s health concerns are dismissed by the white medical establishment. Black women are more likely to have their pain underestimated by health professionals, feel pressured into certain procedures, and experience an overall sense of lost dignity. This phenomenon--of not being listened to or taken seriously by institutionalized medicine--has been exacerbated by COVID, with telemedicine further distancing patients from doctors and hospital room limits preventing Black moms from having an advocate present during birth. Beyond this interpersonal discrimination, Black communities are disproportionately by hospital budget cuts and closures. North ends her piece with a look toward possible solutions, including increased access to birthing advocates, midwives, and non-hospital births, options that could increase the comfort and safety of Black moms.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Markus Batchelor outlines the dismal state of maternal healthcare for the majority-Black Wards 7 and 8 in Washington DC. He begins a brief account of his own premature, difficult birth, identifying the close proximity of the nearest hospital as a factor contributing to his and his mother’s health. This proximity is no longer available to mothers in Wards 7 and 8, with the hospital board deciding in a secret vote to close the obstetrics unit. Batchelor connects this decision to a broader devaluation of poor, Black lives in DC, as these women will be forced to travel distances that their wealthier counterparts will not have to contend with. Batchelor concludes his piece with a call for activism, imploring his audience that “Now is the time for action, a time for change for the expecting mothers and unborn babies of Wards 7 and 8.”
For US News, Chelsea Cirruzzo reports on the newfound optimism maternal health advocates are feeling with a unified White House and Congress. Maternal health bills that stalled during the previous Congressional term now face greater prospects for passage, contrasting this hope with the fate of two maternal health bills that had been passed by the House and had failed to even come up for a vote under a Republican-controlled Senate. Now, with unified Democratic control and leaders in both parties increasingly realizing the urgency of the Black Maternal Health crisis--including some Black women elected officials who personally experienced difficult births--there is both a strong likelihood that the bill could advance and possibly attract bipartisan support. Members of the Black Maternal Health caucus have stated their intention to reintroduce their Black Maternal Health Momnibus, but it remains to be seen if the bill will be able to clear the 60 vote threshold in the Senate.
Picking up on the reintroduction of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus, The Lily’s (a women’s news publication from The Washington Post) Ashley Nguyen explains the impact that the Momnibus could have if passed. Included within the Momnibus are provisions that would direct the NIH to ensure there is a safe, effective COVID vaccine for pregnant women, funding to educate medical professionals on the health risks of certain environmental factors (that disproportionately impact Black women), an extension of the time postpartum women are eligible for food benefits, funding that would go toward anti-racism training for maternity care providers, as well as numerous other features addressing mental health, telehealth, and more. Nguyen ends her reporting with quotes from Rep. Lauren Underwood, who argues for the urgent need to address this crisis, positioning this package as a high governmental priority.
Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy documents how one Black mother’s birth was safer and less stressful in large part because she had a doctor who shared her life experiences and identity as a Black woman. Central to this ‘better’ birthing experience was the patient's, Butler, ability to comfortably communicate with her doctor, Lightfoote, both about health concerns and issues of general wellbeing, including concerns about racial disparities and the ongoing police brutality protests. Milloy situates Lightfoote as the potential solution to the Black Maternal Health crisis, asserting the need for more doctors like her with a willingness to “talk to their patients, not at them.” Part of this clearly entails diversifying the medical field, but it also includes imparting upon all health providers the necessity of listening to women of color with empathy.
6. Racial Disparities in Healthcare Have Led to High Maternal Mortality Rates--What One Doctor is Doing About It
Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, interviewed here by People’s Diane Cho, is the Lead Director of Merck for Mothers, “a global initiative that uses a holistic approach to help promote birth equity and to reduce disparities in maternal health.” Speaking to Cho, Etiebet describes part of her organization's goals as being the empowerment of Black mothers through increasing their access to maternity information. She insists that any ‘solution’ to this crisis cannot be individual; it must be systemic and comprehensive, implemented over time. Part of this solution must be a greater connection between community and medical support, and she identifies this as being part of Merck for Mothers’ mission. In the meantime, while we are still in the midst of crisis, Etiebet points people to resources that can help them advocate for themselves as well as ways to keep up-to-date with Merck for Mothers.
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