As we mark Black Maternal Health Week 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic makes clear that centering the communities and people most affected by health crises is crucial.
Structural racism has always posed formidable barriers to health care for Black people. Black Maternal Health Week highlights a hard truth: Black women’s needs have never been prioritized, leading to disparate, inequitable health outcomes. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic devastates Black communities across the country, that truth is all the more glaring.
For Black people, impending motherhood can feel fraught even in normal times — because during and after childbirth, their health and lives are on the line. At over 40 deaths per 100,000 live births, the maternal mortality rate for Black women is more than three times higher than that of white women.
The work of organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, SisterSong, The National Birth Equity Collaborative and other Black-led reproductive justice organizations have brought the Black maternal health crisis to national attention. Since the first commemoration of Black Maternal Health Week in 2018, these organizations’ efforts have led to the introduction of more than a dozen bills in Congress to rectify the challenges and systemic bias that too often lead to poor maternal health outcomes for Black mamas.
Join us by urging your member of Congress to support the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020 — introduced by Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Ca.), and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Among a comprehensive set of regulations and investments to address the crisis in Black women’s maternal mortality, the Momnibus Act will compile data on the underlying social determinants that lead to higher mortality rates to address the racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes among Black women in America. The bill is endorsed by over 90 reproductive rights and justice organizations, including Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Planned Parenthood, and Black Women’s Health Imperative.
While Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health and rights groups have fought targeted attacks against reproductive health care, we recognize that the bulk of the groundbreaking work to defend access to care has been done by reproductive justice organizations and leaders on the ground. Heroes like Dr. Joia Crear-Perry of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, Angela Aina of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Monica Simpson of SisterSong, and Kwajelyn Jackson of the Feminist Women’s Health Center — have lived and led the work to eradicate disparities and save Black women’s lives. We will never have health equity without the reproductive justice framework they’ve built.
It is clear that the leading cause of Black maternal mortality is racism: Studies show (link) medical professionals tend to take Black women's health concerns less seriously. Anecdotal evidence suggests a pattern of mistreatment and inattention to Black women by medical professionals. Compared to white women, Black women are more likely to have serious complications resulting from pregnancy and less likely to have conditions diagnosed, monitored, and treated in a timely manner.
For many Black women, the addition of a doula or similar supporting provider to advocate on behalf of the patient during pregnancy and delivery has improved their health outcomes. Yet COVID-19 has compelled many hospitals to limit the presence of support providers from delivery rooms — which may exacerbate existing disparities and increase incidences of mistreatment by providers towards patients.
Compared to white women, Black women are more likely to have serious complications resulting from pregnancy and less likely to have conditions diagnosed, monitored, and treated in a timely manner.
Racism in the workplace, when accessing housing, in educational settings, and in other community settings — the social determinants of health — negatively affects Black people. In recent research conducted by Planned Parenthood, Black respondents were most likely to report difficulty paying for basic necessities like food, housing, medical care, and heating. The stress of dealing with racism on a daily basis makes Black women more susceptible to heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic health conditions known to contribute to poor maternal health outcomes.
What we must also take into account: Attacks on access to sexual and reproductive health care also have a disproportionate impact on Black women. The Trump-Pence administration has taken unprecedented steps to roll back access to abortion, block patients from seeking care from the provider of their choice, and institute other restrictions on reproductive health care for millions of people in this country. But obstacles to access are nothing new to Black women, who disproportionately live in states that had barriers to sexual and reproductive health care well before Trump became president. Given the strong link between reproductive health care access and maternal health outcomes, it comes as little surprise that many of those states — such as Texas and Georgia — also have some of the nation’s highest maternal death rates.
While policymakers work with health care leaders and others to make health care more accessible and affordable for people directly affected by COVID-19, they must pay attention to the causes of death and inequities that affect the Black community — even during this pandemic. When we center the communities and people most impacted by health care crises, everyone benefits.
These are challenging times, but we’re in this together. Let’s commit to improving the health and wellness of Black mamas, their families, and their communities during this pandemic and beyond.
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