Robin Boylorn on Black Maternal Mortality, Part 1
American women die at a higher rate from pregnancy and childbirth than women in any other developed country. According to the CDC, Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than women of any other race. And a pregnancy-related death occurs during pregnancy and up to 12 months after being pregnant. A large proportion of deaths among black women occur in the later postpartum period, between seven weeks and a year after delivery, which could result in death statistics that fail to recognize or account for the relationship between a woman’s pregnancy and her death.
I want to reflect on what I see as two determining factors of black maternal mortality: systemic racism and the myth of the strong, black woman.
The systemic racism of the health care industry mimics societal racism in that it disempowers people of color and has physical, psychological and psychosocial impacts, including what Dr. Arline Geronimus refers to as weathering, which is the biological aging experienced by black women because of toxic stress.
Racism also intersects with class. For example, postpartum care is generally only offered up to six weeks after a woman gives birth, when – in reality – complications from pregnancy can occur up to a year or more after giving birth. And Medicaid, a service many low income pregnant women and new mothers rely upon, only covers women up to six weeks after birth, leaving them without care for health issues related to the pregnancy that may not show up until later. So think about this: if it takes nine months to grow a baby, why would it only take six weeks to recover?
Black women’s heightened risk of pregnancy-related death spans income and education levels and gendered racism often leads to black women not being believed and/or heard, and hence, not being saved.
For black women who have exceptional health care access, like Tressie McMillan Cottom, who was interviewed in the WNYC story Giving Birth While Black, the challenge is not access, it is perception. Cottom explained that systemic racism and implicit bias result in a black woman’s vulnerability in seeking help from a system that only sees her as a problem, when it sees her at all.
This brings me back to the myth of the strong black woman, which is a stereotype disguised as a compliment that celebrates the supposed inherent strength of black women and their ability to adapt to and absorb pain.
Because black women are perceived as resilient, they are either dismissed or disbelieved when they complain, or, when they attempt to advocate for themselves, they are often ignored or misdiagnosed.
Black women should not be dying to be mothers.
Beyond knowing about the issue of black maternal mortality, and some of its many causes, it is also important that we understand how we can both save and improve the lives of black women, which will be the focus of my next commentary.
I’m Robin Boylorn. Until next time, keep it crunk!
Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young