The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a study concluding that the rate of maternal mortality for mothers of color is rising — and that pregnant people of color are at a higher risk of death than their white peers.
According to the CDC, Black, Native American and Alaska Native mothers die by pregnancy-related causes at three times the rate of white mothers; and this is coupled with recent reports on how Black people are often consistently and significantly under treated for pain.
While the new rates of maternal mortality are spiking, the fact that Black and Indigenous mothers are at higher risk than their white counterparts when they enter a hospital is a historic and ongoing injustice. While these reports may have recently made headlines, the reality is that mothers of color have been paying the cost of racism with their health for years.
As Jamila Taylor wrote for the Center of American Progress, “Black mothers have long been devalued in American society. During slavery, black mothers were treated as chattel, where the sole purpose of their existence was to breed offspring for subjugation within a capitalist system fueled by slave labor on American soil.”
Devaluing Black lives is an unfortunate stain on our history that continues to live beyond the days of slavery. In the last century, Black communities were forced into sterilization programs and medical experiments and Black pregnancy has been dehumanized through racist stereotypes.
Today, the causes of these unacceptably low maternal mortality rates include doctors ignoring Black mothers’ pain and the lower level of care a mother might receive based on the color of their skin. As Amy Roeder wrote for Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, “Put simply, for black mothers far more than for white mothers, giving birth can amount to a death sentence.”
It’s a terrible reality that too many Black women face.
Earlier this Spring, Representative Lauren Underwood, who at 32-years-old, is the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress, and Representative Alma Adams announced their new Black Maternal Health Caucus. When launching the event, Representative Underwood told the story about how her friend, a Black woman and epidemiologist named Dr. Shalon Irving, died after giving birth to her daughter.
“Shalon’s story is heartbreaking,” said Representative Underwood. “And it’s unacceptable how common it is in this country.”
And just last year, news broke about how tennis star (and the highest paid athlete in the world) Serena Williams nearly died of complications after the birth of her first child when health care officials questioned her pain.
This is the reality facing millions of Black women across the country: that no matter your fame, success, or education, being a Black women and pregnant is dangerous.
As a woman, I am horrified to think that other mothers are at a higher risk of dying in childbirth because of the color of their skin. If I choose to become pregnant, if my peers and friends choose to become pregnant, none of us should face a risk of death because our pain is not valued or our health care deemed unimportant.
Motherhood and the choice to start and family should be one of the most precious and pivotal moments in a mother’s life. In those moments, Black women are too often facing a life or death situation. No mother should fear her own death because she wants to start a family; maternal mortality should never be a part of the equation.
That’s why we are calling out the racism when and where we see it.
Organizations like Mothering Justice are bringing these truths to the forefront by empowering mothers to influence policy on behalf of themselves and their families. Partnering with the Black Mammas Matter Alliance–a national entity working to advance black maternal health, rights, and justice–mothers across the country are working to change black mothers’ health outcomes for the better and sharing their stories, their fears, and their dreams for how their children’s future experiences starting a family will be different.
This is a future we all should be fighting for. Because together we can change the tide and ensure that every mother is treated with respect and receives the healthcare they need.