Why Is the Maternal Mortality Rate So High for Black Women?

April 11-17 is Black Maternal Health Week, organized by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. The campaign, which runs from April 11th through the 17th, aims to “amplify the voices of Black mamas, women, families, and stakeholders.” Black women’s exposure to racism can have severely detrimental health effects, such as the maternal mortality rate being three to four times higher for them than white women. This week’s campaign is aimed at educating about the root of Black women’s health issues and by addressing racism as a major risk factor, we can learn how to better support Black women’s access to safe, effective healthcare.

Recently, there has been an increasing number of stories, personal accounts, and studies about the difficulty of being taken seriously by doctors and medical professionals as a Black women. Serena Williams spoke up about complications after birth, and Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, passed away at the start of the year following the birth of her child. These women’s experiences are often miscategorized by doctors and healthcare professionals who cite race as a potential health risk for certain conditions, complications, and reactions. But the real culprit lies in bias itself: racism.

The reality is, chronic-stress induced by racism is the primary factor in accelerated biological aging of Black Americans and racial disparities in maternal health, poor sleep quality, and heart disease. Anthropologist Leith Mullings characterizes this phenomenon as The Sojourner Syndrome. In her research, she “incorporates an intersectional approach, which emphasizes the necessity of examining how race, class, and gender operate in the lives of African American women and how they interact to produce health effects.” Unsurprisingly, the statistics regarding Black women’s health reflect how racism and the legacy of oppression has defined their risks, treatment, and conditions.

In the past, the NWHN has talked about unfair treatment of women in the ER, but Black women are forced to cope with both gender and racial bias when it comes to medical issues. The accompanying risks, including not being taken seriously, not receiving proper treatment, or being misdiagnosed, are disturbingly high for Black women. Without personally going several extra miles to ensure they are getting the best information and care, black women could risk incredibly detrimental health consequences, which are evident from the harrowing statistics about maternal mortality rates.  

In the media, we hear about racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination often, but we may not understand the severity of the consequences on people’s health and physical well being. The discrimination that Black women face is multi-faceted even without factoring in other determinants such as socioeconomic class and ability status that can influence people’s access to care. In order to support all women’s access to fair, unbiased healthcare options, we must acknowledge the range of issues different communities deal with.

Join in for Black Maternal Health Week, and make sure you read about issues disproportionately affecting Black women. Follow the #BMHW18 hashtag for daily updates, and make sure you check out the Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s website for more information.

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