At What Cost: Dangers of Birthing While Black

“We are not to blame for our negative health experiences, and we do not deserve to carry the burden of fixing them.” - Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

In our current social and political climate, exposure to the devaluation of black bodies has come to the forefront of our social discourse: driving while black, walking while black, even having a barbecue while black, have all come to be dangerous, life threatening acts, discussed widely in the news and on social media. Something little discussed in mainstream media, however, is the danger of giving birth while black. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), African American women more than three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than are white women. Subpar medical treatment for women of color, particularly black women is not new; on the contrary, such inequities are deeply rooted in historical, institutional racism and sexism in this country, tracing back to the exploitation of enslaved black women for medical. So much so, that “the experience of being black in America is so fundamentally different from the experience of being white in America that it translates to health outcomes,” says Dr. William Callaghan, chief of the CDC’s Maternal and Infant Health Branch (11Alive News).

In 2018, tennis star Serena Williams and singer-songwriter Beyonce Knowles-Carter used their platforms to raise awareness for these high rates of maternal mortality through telling their own stories. For many who have struggled with poor maternal health and miscarriage, both women serve as extraordinary role models. However, the reflections of Carter and Williams remind communities of color that wealth does not protect against racism, as even the wealthiest Black women are denied access to holistic maternal care, often costing them their lives. Queen Bey and Serena’s health scares highlight sentiments which black and brown women have been saying for years.... “Doctors aren’t listening to us” (Williams). Studies show that Black women’s pain is often ignored, undervalued, and not taken seriously by white doctors. Often, this leaves Black women to be their own advocates in regards to their prenatal and maternal health care. If they are unable to do so, the cost could be as severe as losing their lives.

Serena Williams, 36, spoke with BBC News to tell her story of giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. Williams nearly died of a pulmonary embolism blockage of the lungs after giving birth via Cesarean section. Unfortunately, other joyful expecting mothers, such as Kira Johnson, arrive at the hospital to give birth, not realizing their newborns would leave the hospitals without them. Johnson’s husband, Charles, recalls him and his wife being “ecstatic” when they were expecting a second boy into their family in 2016 . Upon arriving the hospital, Kira was in excellent health and delivered a baby boy; however, shortly after delivery, Charles began to notice some alarming changes in his wife’s condition, such as blood in her catheter and her experiencing increasingly more pain. He raised his concerns to Kira’s doctors and nurses multiple times, and no immediate necessary measures were taken. Seven hours later, she was taken for an internal exam. This was the last time her husband would see her alive. Doctors later reported discovering approximately three liters of blood in Kira’s stomach.

“We walked in for what we expected to be the happiest day of our life. And we walked straight into a nightmare,” Charles said. “I sit awake at nights thinking maybe I should have grabbed somebody by the collar, maybe I should’ve turned a table over, would that have made a difference? Even two years later, I still can't make sense of it in my mind” (11Alive News). Kira died from a hemorrhage. Charles is now a single father of two children. What may be even more astonishing is that Kira’s case is far from unique. Black women all over the country have stories just like Kira’s.

Washington Post writer Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez says “my own birth experience three years ago showed me firsthand that there are pivotal reasons black women are dying during or immediately after childbirth. Those reasons include an inherent bias against black women, the assumption that we are not knowledgeable about our own health, and old-school misconceptions about black people’s ability to tolerate pain...our current birth system removes women’s consent and denies them of playing an active role in their birth experience.” What’s even more remarkable are the disproportionate statistics that show “for other racial groups an increase in education yields an improvement in health outcomes. However, for black women with a PhD, health outcomes are similar to those of white women with high school diplomas” (Meadows-Fernandez).

The Birthing experience should serve as an intimate, celebratory experience for women and their families. Unfortunately for many this is not the case; some black women, like Meadows-Fernandez, recall the experience “feeling as if I had failed myself...the experience made me feel violated and ashamed.”

So what can be done about this grave injustice? We can uplift the stories of black and brown women with similar experiences as a means of raising more awareness of these high rates of maternal mortality around the nation. Furthermore, the disproportionate statistics are indicative of larger systemic issues around racism and classism engraved in American biomedical healthcare systems that need to be changed. Additionally there needs to be a push for western medical professionals and researchers to recognize the vast social, economic, and political factors that influence health outcomes, particularly in communities of color, and how these factors are reflections of structural and institutional violence. In addition to being extensively trained in racial and social sensitivity, medical professionals should be educated on recognizing their own stereotypes and other racial biases that can impact the type of care they give. Various organizations around the country such as LifeCycle WomanCare in Bryn Mawr, PA and Radical Doula, in Austin, TX are in action to advocate for birth, reproductive, racial, and social justice of women particularly women of color. We need to uplift and support these organizations. We must continue to further develop the discourses embodying the voices of marginalized people, and we must take stances that will demand improved conditions from our higher institutions and push for accountability.


References

Meadows-Fernandez, Rochaun. (2018, August 8). Beyoncé and Serena Williams speaking out about their birth experiences is good for all black women. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/08/08/beyonce-and-serena-speaking-out-about-their-birth-experiences-is-good-for-all-black-women/?utm_term=.e0eb8d50b06f

Fuller, Russell. (2018, March 6). Serena Williams: Statistics on deaths in pregnancy or childbirth 'heartbreaking'. BBC Sports. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/sport/tennis/43299147

Erin Peterson, Jeremy Campbell, Ciara Bri'd Frisbie, Blis Savidge, Matt Livingston. (2018, October 13). She went to the hospital to have her baby. Now her husband is raising two kids alone. 11Alive News. Retrieved from https://www.11alive.com/article/news/investigations/mothers-matter/she-went-to-the-hospital-to-have-her-baby-now-her-husband-is-raising-two-kids-alone/85-604071213?ref=exit-recirc%3Fref%3Dexit-recirc&fbclid=IwAR329TuIZj3WWoNNlm25e7xCLUK1AyZXpj73NkHaIbYI6qFxh2o587K4348

Erin Peterson, Jeremy Campbell, Ciara Bri'd Frisbie, Blis Savidge, Matt Livingston. (2018, October 13). Why childbirth is a death sentence for many black moms. 11Alive News. Retrieved from https://www.11alive.com/article/news/investigations/mothers-matter/why-childbirth-is-a-death-sentence-for-many-black-moms/85-604079621