By PPGNY’s Equity & Learning Team
This week (April 11–17, 2023) marks the 6th Annual Black Maternal Health Week, which was founded in 2018 by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and serves to build awareness, activism and strengthen organizing around Black maternal health. This year’s theme is ‘Our Bodies Belong to Us — Restoring Black Autonomy and Joy.’ Through community-building, in-person and virtual events — the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of Black Mamas and birthing people are centered and amplified. Black Mamas include trans, cis or gender non-conforming folks who care for and parent our families and communities.
Systemic racism within the U.S. health care system, including the maternal health system, has historically led to inequities in care provision and ultimately poorer health outcomes for Black birthing people. This harm and trauma continue to be perpetuated in the present day and is continuing to fail them. We cannot recognize Black Maternal Health Week without addressing the ongoing Black maternal mortality crisis in which a disproportionate rate of Black birthing people die while pregnant or within one year after the pregnancy ends from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or management of the pregnancy.
Based on a recent report released from The Commonwealth Fund, the maternal mortality rate has been on the rise in the U.S. since 2000. Even with all of the information available about the impact of systemic racism on birth outcomes, the U.S. continues to be the worst developed nation for childbirth.
Last month the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics released a maternal mortality report showing that the maternal mortality rate, or number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, worsened in the U.S. by 89% since 2018. A sobering highlight from the report indicated that when we factor in race, the maternal death rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 2.6 times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic white women from 2019–2021. These outcomes are compounded by the intersections of race, gender, environment, and socioeconomic status.
According to the CDC more than 80% of maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable. If that is the case then why are Black women and birthing people dying at such a disproportionate rate? The most prevalent contributing factors associated with maternal mortality include quality of care, underlying chronic conditions (high blood pressure, infection, heart disease) and severe bleeding. However, encountering structural racism along with provider bias while engaging with the maternal health care system is just as much of a culprit to the well-being of Black pregnant people. The experience of being ignored and dismissed by health care providers while expressing concerns about abnormal symptoms and pain leads to ever-increasing death rates.
We lift up the memories of Kira Johnson, Amber Rose Isaac and Shamony Gibson, three of the countless Black women who tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives following childbirth because their concerns to their health care providers were repeatedly ignored, dismissed and delayed. Shamony and Amber Rose are centered in the documentary Aftershock, which chronicles the lives of their partners and loved ones as they try to give voice to these women and advocate to mitigate this crisis. Kira, Shamony and Amber Rose, along with their surviving children, partners and extended families were all failed by a health care system that was supposed to see, hear, validate and protect them.
To close the gaps and shift the culture that perpetuates these disparities, we must center conversations, and act through advocacy and policy change, to more positively impact Black maternal health, rights and justice before, during and after pregnancy.
As an organization providing sexual and reproductive health care, PPGNY must embody our mission of demonstrating a commitment to bodily autonomy, health equity and gender and racial justice. We must provide care with a culturally humble lens and be responsive to the lived experiences of our patients to ensure that Black birthing people are heard and affirmed when receiving care from PPGNY. Ultimately this helps to restore and support bodily autonomy, enhance patient satisfaction, and improve health care outcomes.