Last week (April 11-17) marked the inaugural Black Maternal Health Week, the brainchild of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a Black women-led organization committed to advocating for Black maternal health equity. Throughout the week, Black Mamas Matter Alliance shined a much-needed light on how Black women in the United States are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than women in any other racial group.
Black Maternal Health Week might have come to an end, but we must center the experiences of pregnant Black women throughout the year. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can take action.
What You Need to Know About Black Women's Maternal Health
Structural barriers to high-quality health care kills Black pregnant women at alarming rates. A Black woman in the United States is three to four times more likely than a White woman to die from pregnancy-related causes. It’s even more grim in some cities. A Black woman in New York, for example, is 12 times more likely than a White woman to die from childbirth.
The high maternal mortality rate for Black women in the U.S. cuts across age, education, and income level. Researchers believe that the chronic stress triggered by racism and discrimination is a contributing factor to Black women dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The experience of being Black in the United States can cause high stress levels that lead to maternal death risk factors like high blood pressure and heart disease. Overt racism and implicit bias from health care professionals can also lead to pregnant Black women receiving different and often worse care, which can lead to increased complications. Patients have reported not being believed, being ignored, and having health care professionals dismiss their symptoms or pain.
Racism and other barriers to income have made it so Black women are more likely to use federally funded programs, including Medicaid, to access prenatal and maternal health care. Instead of helping to expand Medicaid, which can help close the devastating racial gap in maternal health outcomes, the Trump-Pence administration is determined to gut the program. It’s working to impose restrictions on enrollment and restrict the health care providers that enrollees can go to for care. Thirty-two percent of Black women do not receive adequate prenatal care, and these attacks are further threatening their health. Many women with low incomes have never even had a chance to access Medicaid. In states where politicians refuse to expand Medicaid, well over a million Black women fall in the “coverage gap” and don’t have health care coverage for essential services that contribute to a healthy pregnancy.
How You Can Take Action to Support Black Mothers
Black women are leading the work to address the root causes of maternal deaths and dismantle the structural barriers to health care that Black women face. Here are some ways that you can join the fight and help ensure that Black women can have healthy pregnancies and healthy births.
1. Educate yourself about Black women’s health access.
Learn about the ways in which Black women face systemic racism and other barriers to accessing health care. The more educated we are, the better positioned we are to fight forcefully against health care inequity and racial injustice.
Once you have educated yourself on the issue, commit to becoming an advocate in the fight against health inequities.
2. Urge your members of Congress to support legislation to protect Black women’s access to preventive and reproductive health care.
This includes contacting your members of Congress to oppose attempts to cut Medicaid, repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and “defund” Planned Parenthood, which would lead to millions losing access to health care coverage and access.
3. Support efforts to establish a maternal mortality review board in your state.
Mortality review boards are tasked with investigating maternal deaths as a strategy for preventing them in the first place. In Virginia, the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Team looked into nearly 400 cases between 1999 and 2007 and found Black women are more likely to die from heart disease and other related conditions than White women; the team followed up with recommendations to policymakers to respond to the issue. Last week, women’s health advocates in New York proposed legislation to establish a state maternal mortality review board.
4. Push to expand Medicaid.
Medicaid is instrumental in preventing Black women from falling into the “coverage gap,” and ensuring that Black women receive the necessary services to promote a healthy pregnancy. Services covered by Medicaid include vital prenatal care and health screenings for possible preexisting conditions that could complicate pregnancy, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
5. Register and pledge to vote.
The 2018 election is approaching, and it’s important to make sure that champions of reproductive health and rights win up and down the ballot. Pledge to vote for officials who prioritize improving access to health care. Votes against women’s health disproportionately affect Black women. Together, we need to vote out policymakers at the local, state, and national level who sweep these issues under the rug or take hostile actions against women’s health.
All people deserve access to quality, affordable, and compassionate and health care. We must address the root causes of maternal deaths, because it’s simply unacceptable that Black women face such stark disparities in health care. Black Maternal Health Week was an incredible launching pad to highlight the work that needs to be done. Planned Parenthood is committed to supporting the work of Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the other advocates fighting for Black maternal health. Together, we can create a health care system and world that fights for and supports Black mothers’ health.