Black Maternal Health Week Has Ended, But The Risk Of Losing Our Black Mothers Hasn't
The conversation can't stop now.
April 19, 2018 at 2:02 pm
The inaugural Black Maternal Health Week ends today. Hosted by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Maternal Health Week (#BMHW18) sought to amplify the voices of black women to increase awareness of and bring attention to the unjust inequities in black maternal health in the United States.
#BMHW18 couldn’t have happened at a better time. National news outlets, like the New York Times, have highlighted black women’s experiences during the prenatal and birthing processes. The ProPublica and NPR series on mothers who have died from pregnancy-related issues centered the experiences of women, collected nearly 5,000 stories of women who have died or nearly died during or shortly after childbirth. News of Serena Williams’ post-birth complications sparked a number of media pieces on her experiences, leaving folks to ask how a black woman with her wealth and fame could still be ignored by people in white coats when she advocates for her health. And when Erica Garner died shortly after giving birth, the tragedy of black maternal deaths due to the stress and trauma of black women’s lives in the US was considered.
Legislators have also responded to the issues #BMHW18 has raised. Last Wednesday, on International Maternal Health and Rights Day, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC), and colleagues introduced a resolution to formally recognize April 11-17 2018 as Black Maternal Health Week. Referring to the fact that black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications, Senator Harris stated, “The maternal mortality rate of black women is a public health crisis that must be addressed.” The resolution lists a litany of other important statistics on black maternal health to emphasize the need for #BMHW18. But, perhaps most importantly, the resolution explicitly calls out racism as playing “an integral role in maternal health outcomes, care, and policy,” confirming what researchers have known for decades, and what black women have known for even longer,
Black women in the U.S. have a long history of poor health outcomes, stemming from generations of mistreatment and abuse. Sexual assault, rape, and forced sterilization, among other violations, have plagued black women since the beginning of their existence in the U.S. Their bodies and lives have been consistently devalued. Threats to reproductive health continue in modern U.S . society, and instead of casting blame on racist systems and policies, black women were shamed by politicians, journalists, researchers, and even doctors for their poor health. As Dorothy Roberts writes in Killing the Black Body, “Poor black mothers are blamed for perpetuating social problems,” leading to policies emphasizing forced contraception as a solution for black America’s ills. Instead of confronting racism as the root cause of black mothers’ increased risk of pregnancy-related complications and death, the U.S. is much more comfortable with blaming individuals and their behaviors, leaving racism unchallenged.
But perhaps this trend is on the verge of change. In addition to the resolution introduced last week, more people are calling out racism and its impacts on the health of black mothers and their children. In 2016, Newsweek highlighted how pregnant women’s access to health care is too often shaped by racism. These stories brought black women’s experiences in a racist society to national audiences, and this past week has provided a platform to center the lives of black women in the U.S. and how racism shows up in their health.
The conversation on racism and black women's health should not end just because the week has. We must continue to lift up black women's voices and amplify their experiences to dismantle the racist systems, policies, and practices that leave too many them at risk. We have to do what the country is so reluctant to do: trust black women when they speak. When we trust black women, when we listen to and value their experiences in a racist society, only then can we save their lives.