First Person: A Black Mama Standing Up for Maternal Health
By Chantal Bonitto | April 15, 2020, 12:30 p.m.
32 weeks pregnant at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an expectant mother talks about systemic racism in health care — and why Black mamas need support and resources to combat it
As a Black woman, preparing to give birth to my second child has been like preparing for battle. Five years ago, as I was in labor with my first child, an intake physician at the hospital made a comment that was both jarring and eye-opening, especially given the precarious situation of Black women in our health system: “If you are not ready to give birth immediately, we would need to cut you open because we need the beds.”
That set a horrific tone for my birth experience. Frantic that I would be forced to have an unnecessary C-section, I waddled back home and went through another 24 hours of labor from my couch, until I knew I was ready to proceed with a vaginal birth. The evening and morning of my labor continued to be stressful and traumatic. My primary health care professionals had no empathy for my concern and pain during the birth or postpartum recovery. I was someone in a bed who had to be ushered out to make room for another person. And that was at a time when there was no pandemic, and no other extenuating circumstance. I was lucky to have my husband and my doula at my side to guide my birth process and help advocate for me — but what about the women who don’t have a support system and have to give birth during a public health crisis?
My primary health care professionals had no empathy for my concern and pain during the birth or postpartum recovery. I was someone in a bed who had to be ushered out to make room for another person.
– Chantal Bonitto
Now, when I am 32 weeks pregnant at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frightened about how I will be received at the time of the delivery of my child. This time, I’ve attempted to do things differently from conception to birth: I chose a different hospital, I carefully selected a person of color as my doctor, and I’ve managed my expectations about equal care. I clearly described the trauma I experienced five years ago when I gave birth to my son to my new doctor. He expressed his disgust with how the system treats Black women, apologized, and promised me a different experience this time. I’m hesitant and cautious about immediately believing him, but he helped me through a miscarriage a year ago and so I am hopeful.
Why the Fight for Black Mamas Is a Public Health Imperative
Black women’s needs have never been prioritized, leading to disparate, inequitable health outcomes. Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic devastates Black communities across the country, that truth is all the more glaring.
Now, during a time when this pandemic strains our hospital systems, I am nervous about the many variables that can be dangerous for pregnant people, especially Black people.
Because of the pandemic, patients at New York City hospitals can only have one birthing partner. I have to make a heartbreaking choice between my husband or my doula. I need both of them to support me in their unique ways. Whomever I choose will have to leave immediately after I give birth. What if I or my baby tests positive for COVID-19? What if my doctor becomes ill due to this pandemic? What doctor will be in the delivery room with me when I give birth — will they be sensitive to my lived experience? Will they have empathy for me and see me as a human being? I can only wish for the best and prepare my mind, body, and spirit to bring my second child into this world.
During a time when this pandemic strains our hospital systems, I am nervous about the many variables that can be dangerous for pregnant people, especially Black people.– Chantal Bonitto
Every person who seeks medical care should be treated with grace, humanity, and dignity. That is why I have dedicated my career to combatting systemic discrimination that puts millions of lives in danger. As the director of inclusive philanthropy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I work to shift the power paradigm of traditional philanthropy. We need all voices at the table deciding how and where our investments are made, and how we define impact. Planned Parenthood, alongside our partners, can lead the charge to provide care without stigma and without bias.
I am grateful to Black Maternal Health Week for providing resources and a sense of community for pregnant Black people who need to be assured that we are not crazy when we call out racial microaggressions — and that we face institutional racism in health care.
As I prepare for the eagerly anticipated birth of my second child, after trying for two years, it is scary to be vulnerable and share my personal experience. But this is the time for all of us to be brave and go beyond our comfort zones. To all who are expecting a child — especially Black women and other women of color — I wish you strength and resilience during these trying times. We are warriors, and together we can raise our voices loud enough to effect change.
Chantal Bonitto is the Director of Inclusive Philanthropy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an organizational leader in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a seasoned fund development expert in the nonprofit sector. Her career has been dedicated to identifying and creating resources for institutions that benefit the most marginalized communities in our society. As a fundraiser she has fostered many skills including, Major & Principal Gifts, Direct Response, Community Engagement/Stewardship and Fundraising Events Planning. Currently, Chantal is using her talents and experience to spearhead a new fundraising program at Planned Parenthood Federation of America as the director of Inclusive Philanthropy. She is leading this work with an intentional focus on next-gen philanthropists and donors of color.