Exclusive: 'Dear Black Women,' A Letter From Vice President Kamala Harris On Maternal Health
April 22, 2021 at 10:46 am
Black women in this country are facing a maternal mortality crisis. Black women die of pregnancy related causes at three times the rate of other women, regardless of income or education levels. And we know the primary reasons why: systemic racial inequities and implicit bias.
Last week, I invited several Black women to the White House to share their stories of pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum complications. The stories I heard had many things in common, but one refrain stood out: Black women are not being heard.
We have to change that. So I'd like to share a few things I think every Black woman should know when she begins her journey toward becoming a mother.
You are allowed to ask questions. And you must.
One courageous woman, Donna Trim-Stewart, joined us at the White House to share the story of her daughter, Arika Trim. Arika was a former Capitol Hill staffer who died unexpectedly a week after giving birth. Ms. Trim-Stewart is now the primary caretaker of Arika's son, Djai.
Akira was a health communications professional, who came prepared for each doctor’s appointment with a notebook of questions. After our system failed her, Ms. Trim-Stewart is still seeking answers.
"I have so many questions," she told us. "Why was she sent home two days after an emergency C-section, given her prior medical history? Why wasn't she taken seriously?"
Every woman has the right to ask questions of their healthcare provider through every step of a pregnancy. Keep a notebook and a list of questions. Doctors are there to care for you. It is their job to answer your questions. If they are doing their job correctly, they will always take the time to carefully go through each question with you.
And, in the wake of tragedy, families have a right to ask questions, too. That's one reason that President Joe Biden and I continue to advocate for the implementation of Maternal Mortality Review Committees. These committees would provide crucial data on the deaths of mothers who die within a year of pregnancy and help mothers like Ms. Trim-Stewart finally receive some answers.
You have the right to be heard and believed.
Another woman who spoke at the White House, Heather Wilson, told the story of her struggle to be heard by her doctors when she expressed that something wasn't right in her body. After losing her first child, she became a bereavement doula—supporting those who experience the loss of an infant.
"The number one thing I hear is 'they're not listening to me,'" Ms. Wilson told us. "There were times that I felt that way too. You're not listening to me. I know my body better than anyone and I'm telling you there are some concerns."
I’ve heard countless stories of women telling their doctors they were experiencing pain, only to be ignored. Stories of women trying to talk about their postpartum depression, only to be dismissed and sent home.
In the medical field, implicit bias is why Black women can speak up and still not be heard. "Many Black and brown women describe profound trauma during the labor and delivery experience—discrimination, feelings of disrespect, and of not being heard," said Dr. Elizabeth A. Howell, who joined the conversation last week.
When I worked in the Senate, I introduced the Maternal CARE Act, which focused on reducing medical errors made as a result of implicit bias. Our administration's new budget includes my bill—allocating $30 million to funds for implicit bias training for healthcare professionals. As Dr. Howell said, "We have to realize that we all have biases. We have to acknowledge them, take a moment, then change our behavior."
You are supported.
I am so moved by the stories I heard this week, and all the stories I've heard over the years. Even more than the stories, however, I am inspired by the solidarity. As a bereavement doula, Heather Wilson does everything from laundry to putting breast milk in the fridge to support women after loss. Erica McAfee, after undergoing tremendous challenges through pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum became a doula to support and be a voice for other women throughout their pregnancy. And she started a podcast, because, in her words, we need to “replace silence with storytelling." I couldn't agree more.
If you are a Black woman reading this and you are pregnant or you have experienced loss, know that there are groups out there, podcasts to listen to, and books to read. You may never meet these Black women who are replacing silence with storytelling -- —but they are passing on their strength to you and want you to know you are not alone.
If you have a story of your own, I know it takes courage to speak about these painful experiences, but there is power -- —and healing -- —in it. Speaking through tears about her daughter's death, Ms. Trim-Stewart told me, "I've decided that I don't want to be silent. I refuse to be silent."
She is using her voice to fight to end Black maternal mortality. President Biden and I are listening, and we will keep fighting right alongside her.
— Vice President Kamala Harris