Black Maternal Mortality: A Think Piece By Sumayyah Franklin

A deep look into Black Maternal Mortality by Doula and Midwife, Sumayyah Franklin.

When you think of someone giving birth, you usually think of them living, right? Black birthing people are dying from giving birth at astronomical rates all around the world. It is a silent genocide that is costing us our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, partners, and loved ones. Most people begin to think about solutions once they learn that Black birthing people born in the US are 3 to 4 times more likely to die than White birthing people.

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Dyme Taylor and Marz Photo by Grand Productions Media

“How could it be that the richest country in the world has birthing outcomes worst than any other developed nation? The closer in proximity to whiteness the Black birthing person is, the more likely they will die from complications, with the vast majority being preventable.”

The nuanced stress that racism inflicts on Black people is literally killing us. Not only are Black birthing people more likely to die, but Black babies are too. Black babies are 2 to 3 times more likely to die before reaching their first birthdays. As well, more likely to be born premature, experience low birth weight at term, and have a higher chance of spending time in the NICU. When you isolate certain states and cities the numbers are even higher! For instance, “Black women are 6 times more likely in San Francisco and an unbelievable 12 times in New York City!” (Savethechildren,2015).

It makes me fume with anger and sadness when I think about how Black lives don’t matter. I am so sad that this is our reality. As a Black birthworker, it feels so natural that I do whatever I can to make giving life and living safe for Black people. However, things aren’t going to turn around simply from the small minority of Black birth workers and allies, we need an uproar. Ain’t shit radical if it doesn’t include birth. You can’t be WOKE and yet keep such a matter as this in your peripheral. This matter needs to be placed front and center— given undivided attention. Not quitting until another reality is experienced. This issue is deep because white birthing people are dying at unacceptable rates as well. By addressing the issue with Black birthing people White birthing people will inherently benefit and see a shift in their outcomes as well.

Again I ask, how is it that America is the richest nation in the world yet we have such poor birthing outcomes? Why have our death rates steadily increased in the last 25 years compared to all other developed nations being able to significantly decrease theirs? How is it that this is not seen as a valued public health crisis and criminal even?

Even though America is the richest nation in the world, there is a huge wealth disproportion. Majority of the wealth is shared amongst 1% of the population. Resources and life-saving care is oftentimes withheld from Black birthing people. Serena Williams’ birth story is a perfect illustration of this detrimental reality. For those who do not know, Serena Williams is arguably the best athlete in the world. She had an estimated net worth of $170 million USD in 2017. Yet, she escaped death from birth-related causes just by the skin of her teeth. She has a pre-existing disease that causes her to have blood clots that have potential to travel to her brain and kill her. She has had this condition since childhood and is very aware of the symptoms as to prevent the disease from taking her life. She went to the hospital for an induction for unknown reasons and eventually had a C-section. Being that she had this major abdominal surgery with her pre-existing condition she should have been closely monitored. Post- operation she was alone in the recovery room when she felt the sensation that she knew all too well. She called for help on the intercom, but to no avail. She then walked to the nurses’ station, yes walked only hours after having major abdominal surgery, to inform them that she was forming a blood clot in her leg and needed a cat scan and medication. They told her that everything was fine and that she should go back to her bed and rest. She then had to advocate, no beg, for them to listen to her—to trust her. She finally got the cat scan just in the Knick of time, and of course, sure enough, a profound blood clot was forming and traveling quickly up her leg. They gave her the medication and the issue was resolved.

Now take a moment to digest that. Why do you think they ignored her when she clearly was telling them that she was in pain? Because Black women are perceived to not experience pain or to have the wherewithal to endure it and persevere. Because Black people are perceivably less intelligent. Because our voices are ignored and silenced in every sector of our lives, even when we are screaming and in distress. If someone with as much clout and wealth as Williams nearly died from birth-related complications imagine the experience of other Black birthing people. The outcomes for Black birthing people are found despite socioeconomic status, geographic location, education level, marital status, and frequency of prenatal care, etc. In Fact, a white birthing person who did not complete high school has far better outcomes than a black birthing person who graduated with their masters. The proximity to whiteness plays an inter grail role in the way that systematic racism is experienced and perceived. If ones proximity to physically interacting with whiteness is intimate than the stress that racism induces is more significant. Racism is killing Black birthing people and babies. Racism and the nuanced ways that it interacts with every facet of a Black person’s life is responsible for the adverse outcomes that we see amongst Black birthing people and babies.

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Photo by Asiyami Gold

Within the “ Black Lives Matter” movement, there is little to no conversation regarding giving birth and being born.

Most of the emphasis regarding systematic oppression and how it compromises Black life is hyper-focused on cops killing Black people. This narrative is one of the most widespread and known regarding contemporary Black Death. However, Black birthing people are dying at rates far higher from giving birth and being born than any bullet*. According to the police violent report organization, about 1,147 people were killed by police in 2017 and about a quarter of them were Black— 287 people. According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), Black birthing people are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy or birth-related causes than their white counterparts. The death rate in the US has more than doubled from 1987-2013. An estimated 315,254 Black women died from giving birth in 2015 in the US. So why aren’t we saying their names, walking out, protesting in uproar? Erica Garner recently died from birth-related complications but her story basically went unnoticed. However, her father Eric Garner was Murdered by NYPD and his story made national headlines. Black birthing people’s experiences aren’t sensationalized in the same way that police inflicted violence unto Black people is. Birth is a natural physiological occurrence and for some reason hasn’t captured a widespread audience. Birthing people in this country are walking away from giving birth feeling traumatized, so much so that a term “obstetric rape” has been used to describe the experience. This speaks to the way that hospital care providers force birthing people to do things and consent to procedures using violence, fear-mongering, and a false sense of authority during any period of receiving care.
On a personal level, these outcomes not only make me angry, but they move me to action. The works of Jenny Joseph, Monica Mclemore, Joia Crear Perry and so many other Black maternal health warriors inspire me and give me amazing examples of solutions. What we know from research and personal accounts is that racism is killing Black birthing people and babies. Therefore, eradicating racism will save the lives of Black birthing people and babies. This does not simply mean having Black providers, but rather dissecting the ways that the racist ridden medical industrial complex engages with the lives and informs the care that Black birthing people and babies receive. Having a Black provider within a system that was never meant to protect the life of  Black people will lead to small improvements in outcomes at best. When Black people engage in alternate systems of healthcare we see far better improvements in outcomes. For instance, Jenny Joseph of Commonsense Childbirth in Wintergreen, Florida has been successful in making a positive impact on outcomes for Black birthing people. Joseph successfully eradicated preterm birth in 2017 within her clientele in a place and amongst a demographic, that has some of the worst birthing outcomes in this country. Her solution was simple, cost-effective, and sustainable. She and all her staff, especially those providing primary care, listens to her clients, offers group prenatal sessions. Joseph believes, “Until women and their loved ones feel that they have enough knowledge and agency to be part of the decisions around their care and until they have access to the education and support that they are lacking, they will continue to be at risk.” This statement is powerful in that it implies that the birthing person is an active participant and should be given enough information so that that can fully consent and collaborate every step of the way. On the other hand, if this is not the reality for every person than the outcomes may be detrimental.

What are some ideas that you infer can be or lead to a solution to this epidemic? What are some questions you have regarding the birthing climate for Black people and their babies?

Let me know in the comments below!

Be sure to visit me on Instagram and Facebook by searching Sumistouch

One comment

  1. Idk what to do. I like the idea of encouraging more doulas. As as aunt of a single parent I encourage my sister to be forthright and confident in her dealings with healthcare professionals. Cuz I do believe some of it just comes down to a lack of confidence and self esteem in our ability to raise our children. Black motherhood is under attack from all fronts. I like the idea of us leaning on us more during the process. I lean towards self reliance. But, would love to know more about your experiences before drawing to many conclusions.


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