This week the world learned of the new royal baby boy born to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, who is of African American descent. While we don’t yet know any details on the birth, we have heard from other famous black moms who shared harrowing tales of their pregnancy and deliveries.
Decorated tennis-player Serena Williams knew something was wrong after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017. She felt short of breath and alerted a nurse to her concerns immediately. Williams’s worries over her health were dismissed though, and it took her fiercely advocating for a CT scan for her to finally get what she needed. Doctors soon discovered deadly blood clots in her lungs. In her recent Netflix documentary on her 2018 Coachella show, Beyoncé also detailed the health complications associated with the birth of her twins. After developing preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy-related condition associated with high blood pressure, she had to undergo an emergency cesarean section.
The stories of Beyoncé and Serena Williams are not unlike the stories of thousands of other pregnant women in the United States. More than 50,000 pregnant women a year face serious life-threatening pregnancy complications. More American women are dying of pregnancy complications than any other developed country in the world – and 60% of all of these deaths are preventable according to the CDC Foundation. Our rates of both maternal morbidity and maternal mortality are rising, and are higher than in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.
To make matters worse, black women in the United States are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy than white women. And the death rates for black infants is twice that of infants born to non-Hispanic white mothers, according to CDC data. The health care costs of these deaths range in the billions of dollars and the emotional toll on mothers, families, and communities is immeasurable. It’s clear – this failure to address the health concerns of mothers, specifically black mothers and other mothers of color, is a public health crisis.
Despite these worrying statistics, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports that the United States has not published an official maternal mortality rate since 2007. Why are the rates so high though? Access to critical reproductive health services is key. As the Trump Administration tries to shut down Planned Parenthood Clinics and other reproductive health facilities as part of its war on women, it creates maternity care deserts and cuts off the access for many pregnant women to needed screenings and preterm treatments.
Other programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) also support the healthcare of expecting mothers – the reduction of funding for these programs throughout the years has cut off needed care for many pregnant women. Because black women are more likely to be uninsured than white women, programs like Medicaid and the ACA have significant racial impacts on prenatal care. Instead of gutting these programs, the list of services for expecting mothers needs to be expanded and funding needs to continue, not be diminished. The Trump Administration’s continued attack on reproductive healthcare and insurance is quite literally risking thousands upon thousands of lives.
Structural racism within the healthcare system is also a significant limit on the quality of care available to many black women, resulting in the maternal healthcare disparities. According to CAP, women of color are less likely to have access to vital reproductive health services including family planning, abortion, and screenings for STIs. African American infants receive lower quality care than non-Hispanic white infants in neo-natal care facilities. The healthcare industry as a whole fails to address implicit racial bias as well. NPR and ProPublica report that African American mothers frequently feel that their pain is dismissed by professionals, resulting in their conditions going untreated (and consequently putting their lives at risk). Black women and infants deserve to be treated in a healthcare system free of racism and bias.
If celebrities like Serena Williams and Beyoncé are severely impacted by problems in the maternal healthcare system, it only gets worse for other women of color, especially women earning lower incomes. These factors and more amount to worryingly high maternal mortality and maternal morbidity rates. The obvious fix is addressing implicit racial bias and expanding access to critical reproductive health services for all expecting mothers, as well as improving current maternal healthcare nationwide – The Center for American Progress outlines many of these needed changes in a comprehensive policy blueprint. There is hope though, with the development of the new Black Maternal Health Caucus and the increased focus of 2020 Presidential Candidates on maternal health – advocates are calling for progress to be made, and NOW stands with them.
We owe it to our black mothers this Mother’s Day to take concrete steps towards reducing the unaddressed maternal health crisis in the United States.
Blog by Elena Mieszczanski, NOW Government Relations Intern