Serena Williams’ harrowing near death experience, after giving birth to her daughter Olympia, could have resulted in a horrific loss if she had not possessed the confidence to advocate for herself. I remember first hearing Serena’s story and how her efforts truly helped save her own life. Unfortunately, there are too many stories that are similar to Serena’s, but with different outcomes. Those stories often result in death.
Those stories include deceased Black mothers like Kira Johnson, who died in a Los Angeles hospital after giving birth to her second child. In Kira’s case, she died from internal bleeding despite spending eight hours pleading for a CT scan while still in the hospital. I had the honor of interviewing Kira’s husband, Charles Johnson, earlier this year. I learned the heartbreaking details of Kira’s story from him.
How Black mothers are treated during pregnancy, and after the birth of their children, has a lot to do with the disproportionately high maternal mortality rates that result. Intervention on that front, and on several other fronts, is needed to prevent Black mothers from facing such high levels of maternal mortality. In addition to heightening awareness about these issues, we should also become advocates of policies and new approaches supporting Black mothers to have healthy pregnancies and deliveries rather than dying from them.
The United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality among developed nations. In fact, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control presentation, Black women bear the brunt of this as they are dying at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts nationwide. I learned that in my home state of Texas, Black women and women over the age of 35 have the greatest risk for maternal death. According to a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, per every 100,000 live births in Texas, on average 14.6 result in death, but the Black maternal mortality rate is 27.8 per 100,000 live births.
Because of staggering statistics like these, and the fact that maternal mortality in general can be prevented, groups all over the nation have focused their energy on prenatal care and safety procedures at delivery to prevent maternal mortality, among other efforts. I had the pleasure of participating in such a local group — the Houston Endowment’s Steering Committee. It focused on pushing forward recommendations on what could be implemented locally to reduce maternal mortality. The recommendations ranged from expanding health care coverage to improving data collection to addressing implicit bias, among many others.
Identifying and participating in local work being done similar to the work our steering committee embarked upon is one way to impact change with respect to maternal mortality. However, this is only one approach of many. Advocating for federal policy that supports new approaches and investment in reducing these disparate outcomes is also critical.
We have an opportunity to advocate to put more resources behind addressing maternal mortality by supporting proposed measures like the Black Maternal Health Caucus’ Momnibus Act. Led by Senator Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Alma Adams, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood and the remaining members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, this effort is a combination of bills that: (1) make investments in social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes, like housing, transportation and nutrition; (2) provide funding to community based organizations that are working to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women; (3) comprehensively study VA maternity care; (4) grow and diversify the perinatal workforce for more trusted care; (5) improve data collection to better understand causes of maternal mortality; (6) invest in maternal health care and substance use treatments; (7) invest in tele-health; (8) promote innovative payment models and extended coverage; and (9) improve care and support for incarcerated women.
As the November election approaches, we should support leaders who will advocate for the passage of these measures and hold all elected leadership accountable for getting these life-saving measures passed, as well.
There is much still left to discover about maternal mortality, but there is a tremendous amount we already know about preventing the high rates of maternal mortality experienced by Black women. Many people know about disparate treatment of patients due to the implicit bias medical health care professionals often possess. We must continue to increase awareness about this and the many other variables that contribute to Black mothers losing their lives at startling rates.
If we fail to pass the Momnibus Act, and other related measures, as well as engage in local proactive groups and commissions to reduce maternal mortality, we will be forced to explain to the next generation how we knowingly allowed Black mothers to die at alarming rates — leaving only their shocking stories behind as a reminder of the work left undone. We must act now — Black mothers’ lives are depending upon it.