Black Maternal Health Week spotlights a dire health disparity in the United States
Blog ››› ››› CHENAY ARBERRY
During the second annual Black Maternal Health Week, media outlets at the state and national level ought to take notice of the growing racial health disparity in the United States that has gone under-reported for far too long.
According to an investigation by USA Today, America is the “most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world.” Even worse, as an April 2018 fact sheet from National Partnership for Women & Families noted, “black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death” compared to their white counterparts, regardless of education or wealth. Although media have occasionally highlighted this issue in the context of celebrities’ birth experiences, Black maternal mortality is a serious issue deserving of broader coverage year-round.
Here's what media needs to know about Black Maternal Health Week and the Black maternal health crisis in the United States:
What is Black Maternal Health Week and why is it important?
Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17) was first launched in 2018 and is led by the Black Mamas Matters Alliance to raise awareness of the status of Black maternal health in the United States. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance was established in 2013 as part of “a partnership project between the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.”
These organizations produced and submitted a collaborative report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that focused primarily on Southern Black women’s experiences attempting to access quality maternal health care -- experiences which often resulted in poor maternal health outcomes and persistent racial health disparities. For example, the report noted that between 1990 and 2013, the rate of maternal mortality in the United States more than doubled, and it highlighted that in some parts of the country, “the rate of maternal death for women of color exceeds that of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Approximately 4 million women in the U.S. give birth each year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2017 that the rate of "severe maternal morbidity ... has been steadily increasing in recent years and affected more than 50,000 women in the United States in 2014.” Severe maternal morbidity impacts include enduring dangerous, traumatic, life-threatening complications that can leave people wounded, financially devastated, and for some, without the ability to bear more children. The CDC has estimated that roughly 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, with Black women bearing the brunt of those maternal deaths. To illustrate the impact of this vast racial health disparity, a 2017 ProPublica investigation found that a Black woman “is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, ... but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.”
How do media typically cover Black maternal health?
Although the severity of America’s Black maternal health crisis is deserving of far broader coverage, the topic often only breaks through in the context of celebrity birth experiences. For example, in 2018 two high-profile stories involving Serena Williams and Beyoncé exemplified the dire circumstances of the Black maternal health crisis, underscoring that even prominent and traditionally successful Black women are not immune from its impacts.
Speaking to CNN, Williams brought attention to the racial health disparity by sharing her birth experience, stating that she nearly died in childbirth. Williams highlighted the disparities in access to care for Black women and stressed that, “every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.” In Vogue's September 2018 issue Beyoncé candidly shared the story of her own dangerous birthing experience. As she explained, “I was 218 pounds the day I gave birth to Rumi and Sir. I was swollen from toxemia and had been on bed rest for over a month. My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section.”
Williams’ and Beyoncé’s experiences further demonstrated that when it comes to America’s worsening Black maternal mortality crisis, no amount of wealth or status can protect a Black woman from experiencing dangerous and potentially fatal childbirth conditions.
Why is it important to center Black mothers’ experiences when reporting on Black maternal mortality and health disparities?
Although celebrity experiences more consistently generate media coverage, there have been instances in which stories about Black women’s birthing experiences or stories surrounding the status of Black maternal health break through. In March 2019, USA Today published an investigation of maternal deaths at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans -- a facility which was branded as one of the most dangerous hospitals for Black women in the area to experience labor. According to USA Today, Touro Infirmary was one of 120 hospitals across the country where mothers suffered severe childbirth complications or death at far higher rates than other U.S. hospitals. In response to the piece, the hospital blamed its area’s “medically vulnerable” population, citing, “Lifestyle diseases, the high cost of healthcare, delaying or non-compliance with medical treatment, limited care coordination, poor health, high rates of poverty and high rates of morbidity are all realities of our State and community.” As USA Today noted, this was a particularly troubling response given that “a majority of women who deliver at Touro are black.” Beyond highlighting dire health conditions -- which are unfortunately representative of many Black women’s childbirth experiences -- USA Today’s report also exemplifies the importance of listening to Black women and allowing them the space to share their personal maternal health experiences.
In 2018, USA Today highlighted the experience of YoLanda Mention, who tragically died following childbirth as a result of hospital and emergency room staff ignoring numerous “warning signs." After giving birth, she was discharged despite having dangerously high blood pressure that only increased once she returned home. When a severe headache landed Mention in the emergency room 15 hours after she was initially discharged, she was forced to wait for hours and ultimately left unattended until suffering a stroke. As USA Today concluded, this negligence is all too common:
YoLanda didn’t die from some unforeseen childbirth complication. What killed her didn’t take any expensive, high-tech equipment to detect and treat. Just a blood pressure cuff, IV medication that costs less than $60 a dose and a hospital adhering to best safety practices.
In a 2018 congressional hearing on maternal mortality, Charles Johnson testified about his wife Kira -- who he said, “just wasn’t in good health, she was in exceptional health” -- and her death due to complications that were ignored after childbirth. Kira Johnson gave birth to their son Langston at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital well-known for its superior medical care. But her reports of pain in her abdomen post-cesarean delivery were ignored, as were her husband’s repeated requests for a CT scan to assess the problem. Hospital staff reportedly told Johnson that his “wife just isn’t a priority right now” and instead waited “more than 10 hours” after delivery before they finally examined her and found “three and a half liters of blood in her abdomen.” She was ultimately unable to recover from so much internal bleeding. Although tragic, Kira Johnson’s story received local and national attention, highlighting the importance of giving narratives like Johnson’s a platform to bring visibility to those impacted by the Black maternal mortality crisis.
According to reporting from Austin, TX, television station KXAN, “Black women in Texas are at the greatest risk” of dying as a result of childbirth or related complications, “an alarming rate … on par with developing countries.” The station shared the experience of Cheryl Perkins, who watched as her daughter Cassaundra Perkins became progressively more sick after giving birth to twins via emergency caesarean. As KXAN explained, “An autopsy revealed that doctors left behind pieces of placenta after surgery, causing a deadly infection.” Both state and national news outlets covered Perkins’ case to demonstrate Texas’ Black maternal mortality crisis. After becoming aware of Perkins’ death, Democratic Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry announced that she would introduce legislation to direct attention to the state’s disparate rates of Black maternal mortality.
Each of these examples from media outlets amplifies the experiences of Black women who suffer as a result of disparate maternal health care in the United States. Black maternal mortality should be a story year-round, but during Black Maternal Health Week, it is especially important for media to center and highlight the lived experiences of Black women when discussing maternal mortality. With the founding of a new Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House, media have yet another opportunity to cover this topic. Black women are at the forefront of this specific health crisis, and it would be a disservice for the media not to center their voices during Black Maternal Health Week.