Racial Injustice in Maternal Health

By Frida Mom 

How Systemic Racism Affects Black Mothers

It would be impossible to bottle the emotions a person goes through when they find out they’re having a baby. Excitement, apprehension, shock, joy - the ups and downs and in-betweens are a constant cycle. But for Black women in America, there’s likely another emotion bubbling under the surface: fear.

Fear that they won’t receive adequate or equitable pre- and post-natal care. Fear that pregnancy inherently puts their very lives at risk, because they are Black. Fear that going into the hospital to deliver their baby won’t be a joyful occasion, but a tragic or traumatizing one.

Because to be a pregnant Black woman in America means having to grapple with a maternal mortality rate that is three times higher than that of white women. It means navigating a maternal health system that is plagued by the same systemic racism that plagues so many of our institutions and social services and systems. It means trying to reconcile all the same emotions other women feel when they are expecting a baby with the additional stress of being pregnant in a system that doesn’t prioritize your care. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow humans to educate ourselves about what’s happening and work to rebuild a more equitable system.

How maternal mortality disproportionately affects Black mothers in America

The problem is clear: Black women are dying at a higher rate of preventable pregnancy and postpartum-related complications that women in other ethnic groups. The latest data shows that Black women are over three times more likely to die during or immediately following childbirth than white women; for women over the age of 30, that rate jumps up to 4-5 times higher than white women. The disturbing maternal mortality rate in Black women is also directly and heartbreakingly tied to the Black infant mortality rate, which is also higher than other groups. Black babies born in the United States are twice as likely to die as white babies; incredibly, this disparity is actually higher than it was in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery. 

The disparity remains nearly unchanged across class lines; in fact, data shows that the maternal mortality rate for college-educated Black women was higher than it was for white women with less than an 8th grade education. When international tennis superstar Serena Williams had her daughter in 2017, the athlete suffered a potentially-fatal pulmonary embolism following her c-section. Despite having a history of embolisms, and being one of the most well-known athletes in the entire world, Serena says her pleas and concerns were initially ignored by medical staff, and she suffered through several more complications that left her bedridden for the first six weeks of her baby girl’s life. 

Where we go from here

For 20 years, researchers have tried to find a reason for the disparities in maternal and postpartum care that explains the vastly different experiences Black mothers have when it comes to maternal health. The medical community is finally coming around to the most evident truth: the differences in care, the ones that result in more Black mothers and infants dying of preventable conditions, are part of the institutional and structural racism that exists in the medical community, and that has existed for centuries. Acknowledging that this systemic racism exists is just the first step - we have to begin to dismantle it, and protect the lives of all mothers and their babies. Every Mother Counts has compiled a comprehensive list of resources that can serve as a starting point for educating ourselves about the Black maternal health crisis and how to address and fix the systemic racism in medicine that creates this massive chasm for Black moms and babies. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance is doing some amazing advocacy in this area, working to change and advance policies in the medical community, reframe the conversation around Black maternal health, and develop more comprehensive and supportive care practices to better serve the Black maternal community. The amazing team over at 4th Trimester Project is creating a space for Black mothers where they can access resources regarding their prenatal and postpartum care, and connect with other mothers to build a network of support during a time when having a village is so incredibly important.

We believe that all mothers deserve to be supported and cared for during this vulnerable time, and this system is failing our Black mothers and families in devastating ways. If we know better, we have to do better, and we must work to change a system that doesn’t protect and support all those who are part of it.