US Black Maternal Health: Watch this Documentary
Let’s talk about black maternal health.
** I wrote this back in May, and I tried to get it published on a few motherhood websites. Now I’ve decided to publish here, in my own space, in honor of MLK Day and my upcoming birth. **
Many times on social media I’ve tried to help answer the question, when other mothers have asked: “But why is there a black maternal health week?” (Black Maternal Health Week was April 11-17, 2018, and I tried A LOT to help explain why it was needed. There’s another Black Maternal Health Week THIS April 11-17.)
If you don’t already understand why it’s necessary to focus on Black Maternal Health, let me try and enlighten you.
Thanks to this NPR report, we now know that more American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country, and only in the U.S. has the rate of women who die been rising. And, thanks to a Fusion TV documentary called “Naked Truth: Death by Delivery,” we now know that the death rate is significantly higher for women of color than for white women (3-4x in some places, and as high as 8x in NYC). You may have also read the New York Times Magazine about Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis. There are lots of articles highlighting the disparities in care.
But, why? Why is this happening? The simple answer: Racism. Yes, this issue is complex. I’m not trying to oversimplify, but the root of the problem can be summed up in that one word. Racism. Curious? Watch this documentary:
It is so ingrained in the culture of the United States that we white Americans hardly notice it. Racism is insidious, and it leads to disparities in overall healthcare. Internalized and systematic racism leads to more stress on women of color, which negatively affects their overall health and also their maternal and infant health. Regardless of their levels of income or education, women of color fare worse in childbirth and the fourth trimester than white women. This issue is heartbreaking, but also completely fixable. But first we have to look it in the face.
On Monday, April 16, 2018, I watched a screening of “Naked Truth: Death by Delivery” with about 85 people — women and men of various ages and races. It was screened for free at the Belcourt in Nashville by Healthy & Free Tennessee as part of #BlackMaternalHealthWeek, created by Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
The documentary is moving, frustrating, eye-opening. It examines the terrifying odds black women face in childbirth across the country. We see OB-GYNs, midwives, doulas, and mothers tell their stories. We hear from a mother who has lost her own daughter in a tragic death that could have should have been avoided. We are slapped in the face by the embarrassing state of healthcare.
I sat with my friend in the back of the dark theatre, and for part of the film we gripped hands, gripped wrists, looked to each other in horror. My friend immigrated to America six years ago from Ethiopia. I wondered if she was regretting her decision to come here. I wouldn’t blame her if she was. Before my friend gave birth in America, we talked extensively about birth in America and Ethiopia. Many women she knew birthed confidently and without epidurals.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to her in the theatre. “I’m sorry it’s upsetting.”
“No,” she said. “Knowledge is power. I’m glad I’m here.”
When the film transitioned from Georgia to New York, I was shocked to learn that maternal death rates were even higher there. One doula, Efe Osaren from Ancient Song Doula Services in Brooklyn, told a story of a mother getting stitched up and shouting, screeching in pain. Her doula stopped the doctor and asked if she had numbed the patient. The doctor had not.
“We’re trying to stop this generational trauma of birth being violent,” Osaren said in the film.
After the film, we sat in silence for a minute staring at the seats in front of us. Processing the information and the unexpected guilt of being blissfully unaware until now. My friend got up to go to the bathroom and call her husband, who was home with their 6-month-old daughter. I texted to check on my 3-year-old son. Our kids were fine, so we stayed for the panel discussion after the film. And I am so glad we did.
The panel was made up of a phenomenal group of women:
Dr. Linda Clayton, Medical Director, Women’s and Reproductive Health, TN Dept of Health
Dr. Diane Folk, Instructor in Nursing, Vanderbilt School of Nursing
Dr. Connie Graves, Medical Director of Tennessee Maternal Fetal Medicine and the Medical Director for Perinatal Services at St. Thomas Midtown
Miajenell Peake, Community Outreach Manager at CHOICES and Birth Doula, Peake Wellness, LLC
Taneesha Reynolds, Certified Nurse Midwife, Baby+Co
While the presenter read over Taneesha Reynolds’s experience, I realized I knew her from Baby + Co, a birth center in Nashville. She was the midwife I saw after my miscarriage in November of 2017.
Dr. Graves was responsible for starting Tennessee’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee, and she and Dr. Clayton both serve on the committee.
You can see if your state has a Maternal Mortality Review Committee on the Every Mother Counts website. Go to the Giving Birth in America page and scroll down to the map of the US.
Dr. Folk was responsible for reviewing cases of mothers who had died in New York. She described poring over the files, looking for any number of small things that healthcare providers may have missed. High blood pressure, headaches, swelling. Undiagnosed preeclampsia, missed symptoms that could have saved lives. She described talking to nurses and doctors who cared for these patients. She once heard a nurse say, “Oh, she was non-compliant.” The term “non-compliant” is doctor-shorthand for patients who don’t take their medications or follow medical recommendations. But, patients who may not have had transportation or childcare are sometimes wrongly lumped into that non-compliant category, as well.
The presenter asked the final question: What can each of us do to help?
That same question had been stuck in my throat for an hour because, as much as I wanted to help, a part of me assumed that there’s nothing I could do to fix a problem so big, a system so broken, a culture so fucked. (Also, I was afraid of coming across as the naive white girl on a mission driven by white guilt, which, I now realize is another part of the problem.)
The answers from the women on the panel gave me hope and made the huge, mountainous problem seem fixable. Here were their collective answers:
Support the mothers in your life. Take them a hot meal. Educate the people in your circle; continue to educate yourself. Ask questions. If you can, and when appropriate, accompany your friends to prenatal visits. Get a doula. Explore a midwife or birth center if they’re available. Do what you can when you can, volunteer when you can. If you see something wrong, say something. Look inside yourself, take a good look in the mirror and uproot the learned prejudices in your heart. Have compassion for every person.
When the film ended, I felt despair. Rage. Hopelessness. But when the panel ended, I felt a tiny flame flicker at my center. Hope.
I felt the compassion and power in so many women (and men!) with skin of varying shades coming together for education, healing, and progress. All of us there to uplift women, particularly women of color.
If you want to help solve these issues in your community, you can jump in and pull up your sleeves. Search for local organizations already working to improve birth where you can volunteer or donate money or resources. And if you’re pregnant, take your time finding a healthcare professional who values you and listens to your concerns.
If you feel called this MLK Day, join me in donating to Black Mamas Matter Alliance, who is working to help black mothers and babies not only survive, but thrive. Every Mother Counts is another organization doing birth justice work in America and beyond.
I believe peace on earth begins at birth. I believe with education, support, and hard work, we will fix this and do better for all our sisters and their children.
Keep your eyes open for these issues in the news if you’re connected to the birth community, and watch out how you can help more this April during Black Maternal Health Week.
If you’d like to follow this issue on Instagram, here are some accounts that highlight black maternal health & birth disparities:
(I will update this list. If you know of an account posting about birth justice and black maternal health, please reach out to me and let me know.)