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Black Mamas Sound Alarm on Maternal Death Rate

Auditi Guha

The United States is among the few countries where maternal mortality rates are rising and the only country where Black maternal mortality rate is climbing.

When a Black teen arrived at a hospital to give birth, doctors found she had abnormally high blood pressure that was causing severe stress, said Haywood Brown, a physician and president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Medical professionals rushed to help, but it was too late. The baby survived; the teenager didn’t.

It was a death that could have been avoided by the right care or checkup, which never happened because her pregnancy was likely not accepted at home or at school. “She didn’t just become severely hypertensive the day she she showed up,” Brown said Wednesday at a Washington, D.C., policy briefing on maternal mortality.

The tragedy of maternal death affects Black women disproportionately in the United States as they are nearly four times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women, according to CDC data he pointed to.

As the American Health Care Act (AHCA) awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate, the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) brought together a cross section of Black leaders including doctors, researches, and activists to discuss the importance of advancing care to benefit Black women and reverse the alarming trend.

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“As a Black mother, I cannot buy or educate my way out of dying at three to four times the rate of a white woman in the United States. Maternal mortality rates persist regardless of class or education status because of racism,” said panel moderator Joia Crear-Perry, a Louisiana-based physician and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative.

The solution is to fight back against the systemic racism that has limited Black women’s access to a living wage, affordable housing, education, nutrition, and other resources needed to live a life of dignity, including having a healthy pregnancy, she said.

“While we have long struggled to close the gap in the disproportionately high rates of Black infant deaths, now we have to come to the shocking realization of the high rates of maternal mortality for Black women as well. This growing crisis signals a deadly flaw in health care for pregnant women overall,” said Fleda Mask Jackson, researcher, president/CEO of national think tank Majaica, LLC, and creator of Save 100 Babies, a cross-sector network based in the South.

The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world and the problem disproportionately affects Black women. This should be a big part of the struggle for reproductive justice but has not been a part of the AHCA debate in D.C., speakers said. 

Congressional legislative opportunities include the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017 (H.R.1318) and Improving Access to Maternity Care Act (H.R.315), which will collect critical data and help researchers understand why these deaths are happening, Brown said.

Much more needs to happen on Capitol Hill to advocate, drive research, build support, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice, BMMA members said.

“Black women need government accountability. We need to know our lives are valued,” Crear-Perry said. “Black[ness] isn’t the risk factor; racism is.”

The Trump administration’s attacks on reproductive health have left Black women more vulnerable.

“Black women’s wombs built America,” said Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a Tennessee-based grassroots reproductive justice organization. She called the White House “irresponsible” for ignoring maternal health care. 

“We have shown by our leadership, our labor, our wombs, and our votes that we are showing up for America,” said Scott, adding that 94 percent of Black women voted for Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. “It is time for America to stand up for us,” she said.

Members of Congress stopped by to commend the leaders of the organization’s first-ever briefing. Co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), said she reintroduced the Healthy MOM Act to give mothers access to health care when they find out they are pregnant. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) urged the audience to continue the discussion by calling their representatives and keeping the pressure up as the deeply unpopular health care bill nears a Senate vote.

“These are issues we need not be revisiting in the 21st century,” said Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), calling on the audience to “stay woke.”

“We must make sure everyone, especially Black women, are given the dignity and support needed to survive,” she said. 

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