Maternal health is a critical issue that affects women globally, but the situation for black women in the United States is especially dire. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed nations, and this disparity is even more pronounced among Black women.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. These disparities persist regardless of income or education level, and they are even more pronounced for Black women with low socioeconomic status.
These disparities in maternal health are deeply rooted in a history of systemic racism and discrimination, including in the medical field of gynecology, where white male doctors exploited the bodies of Black enslaved women. In the 19th century, J. Marion Sims made huge advancements in gynecology. He developed new surgical techniques for repairing fistulas, a complication of childbirth that can cause incontinence and other serious health problems. His work was so ground-breaking that he became known as the ‘Father of Modern Gynecology.’ But his work was entirely unethical and immoral. He performed test surgeries on enslaved Black women without anesthesia and without their consent.
One of those women was Anarcha Westcott. She was an enslaved African American who was one of the several enslaved women who had to endure cruel medical experiments. She underwent more than 40 surgical procedures. Dr. J. Marion Sims experimented on Anarcha and other enslaved women to perfect surgical methods for repairing vesicovaginal fistulas, a birthing problem. Dr. Sims’ surgical methods, which he subsequently utilized to effectively cure the injury in white women, were developed in large part because to the suffering of Anarcha and the other women. But for many years, their pain and contributions were completely disregarded.
Nowadays, Anarcha and the other women who were the subjects of Dr. Sims’ studies are honored for their significant contribution to the advancement of modern gynecology.
It is a well-documented fact that Dr. J. Marion Sims held racist and sexist beliefs, and he believed that Black women did not experience pain in the same way that white women did. This conviction may be shown in his writings and records of his studies, where he characterized his Black patients as “stoic” and “resistant to pain”.
This idea is not only extremely problematic, but it also led to the cruel treatment of the enslaved women he conducted experiments on. It is critical to recognize and condemn the damaging and racist views and acts of historical leaders such as Dr. Sims, while also acknowledging the significant contributions of those who have been victimized by these practices.
Black women have a historical mistrust of the medical profession because of this history of exploitation and mistreatment. It has also contributed to a lack of understanding and empathy for the difficulties that Black women undergo during pregnancy and delivery. Additionally, Black women frequently encounter obstacles to receiving high-quality medical treatment, such as implicit bias on behalf of healthcare professionals, racial and socioeconomic disparities regarding access to care, and an absence of treatment that is culturally competent.
To solve this issue, it is critical to address its historical and structural foundations. The history of racism and exploitation in gynecology must be acknowledged and addressed by healthcare professionals and legislators, and efforts must be made to rebuild trust with the Black community. The socioeconomic determinants of health, such as systematic racism, poverty, and access to healthcare and education, must also be addressed as part of efforts to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women. It should be noted that indigenous women and Latinas also suffer from higher rates of health complications associated with pregnancy.
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL, a nurse, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is re-introducing her Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a comprehensive package to identify the causes of high mortality rates and provide effective solutions. The legislation focuses on expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers, financing community-based groups, enhancing data collection, tackling socioeconomic determinants of health, and funding maternal mental health treatments, all with the end goal of reducing inequities while improving maternal health outcomes. The Momnibus Act is widely viewed as a significant step in the right direction toward addressing the urgent issues surrounding Black maternal health.
By Gabriela Larios, President’s Office Intern
- Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women (CDC)
- In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.9 times the rate for non-Hispanic White women (19.1). (CDC)
- Black women also are nearly twice as likely compared to White women to have a birth with late or no prenatal care compared to White women (9% vs. 5%)(KFF)
- Research also shows that Black women are at significantly higher risk for severe maternal morbidity, such as preeclampsia, which is significantly more common than maternal death (KFF)
- Black Mamas Matter Alliance: A national organization with a focus on reproductive justice and human rights that promotes laws and procedures that enhance maternal health outcomes for black women. Their website offers details on resources, events, and advocacy projects: https://blackmamasmatter.org/.
- National Birth Equity Collaborative: A nonprofit organization that uses research, policy advocacy, and community involvement to reduce racial inequities in maternal and infant health. Their website provides information on resources, research, and initiatives: https://birthequity.org/.
- Black Women’s Health Imperative: A national organization that promotes laws and initiatives to enhance the health and wellbeing of black women and girls. Their website provides information on health issues, resources, and advocacy initiatives: https://bwhi.org/.
- SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective: A national advocacy organization for reproductive justice for women of color, with an emphasis on intersectionality, human rights, and social justice. Their website provides information on resources, events, and advocacy initiatives: https://www.sistersong.net/.
- March of Dimes: A national nonprofit organization striving to improve maternal and baby health with emphasis on minimizing infant mortality and premature birth. Their website provides information on resources, research, and advocacy initiatives, including specific initiatives to address racial disparities in maternal and infant health: https://www.marchofdimes.org/.