When women become pregnant, it's easy to take for granted that within ten months they'll emerge from labor with a brand new baby. Increasingly, in the African American community, this simply is not the case. Alarmingly, black women are 300 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than white women. For new and expectant black mothers in the U.S., the World Health Organization estimates that the rate of survival is equivalent to that of women in some third world countries.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, these racial disparities transcend education and income levels. A 2016 analysis of five years of data compiled in New York City revealed that college-educated black mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than their white counterparts who never graduated from high school.
“It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem," Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told ProPublica. "You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”
This certainly seems to have been the case for 36-year-old, Shalon Irving. An epidemiologist at the CDC holding a B.A. in sociology, two master’s degrees and dual-subject Ph.D., Irving was the picture of socioeconomic success, but none of this prevented her from dying three weeks after giving birth.
Health inequities are nothing new in this country. For instance, black women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than white women and 71 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer. Historically, these disparities have been falsely attributed to some inherent issue, or as one doctor wrote in 1903, their “mass of imperfections” and "their own behavior." Today, it is widely understood that the problem isn't inherent, but the result of structural inequities in the health care system.
So, what can be done to prevent maternal mortality for black women? Here are three proactive steps you can take:
1. Preconception Planning: An estimated 50 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, however planning your pregnancy can go a long way in ensuring a healthy pregnancy and childbirth. A preconception doctor's visit is one of the most significant things you can do for your future child.
2. Diet and Exercise: Exercising and eating right reduces your risk of issues like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
3. Pre- and Postnatal Care: Having a healthy pregnancy is one of the best ways to promote a healthy birth. Getting early and regular prenatal care improves the chances of a healthy pregnancy. This care can begin even before pregnancy with a preconception care visit to a healthcare provider.