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        Health Matters

        Black Maternal Healthcare: A Deadly Disparity

        Racism exists in our healthcare system in the same way it exists in every part of our lives, and its consequences for Black women and mothers have reached catastrophic levels.

        When twenty-six year old Sha-Asia Washington, a paraprofessional working at a Brooklyn charter school, found out she was expecting her first child, a baby girl, she was thrilled. She planned to name her Khloe. On July 2nd, she made her way to Woodhull Medical Center for a routine stress test. Her blood pressure was high, and as she was a few days past her due date, the hospital decided to keep her for observation. A few days later, in a heartbreaking and horrific turn of events, Sha-Asia Washington died of a heart attack. Although many of the details are still unclear, one thing we know for certain is that Sha-Asia’s story echoes those of too many Black mothers in this country.

        The maternal mortality rate for Black non-Hispanic women is more than triple that of white non-Hispanic women. Black moms are also more likely to have a preterm birth, twice as likely to have a low birth weight infant, and twice as likely to have a stillborn baby, reports Evidence Based Birth. Black babies are also twice as likely to die before turning one.

        Research shows that common risk factors such as education level, prenatal care, and socioeconomic status does not fully account for this deadly disparity. Instead, as Dr. Ana Langer states quite plainly: "Basically, black women are undervalued. They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed."

        In hospitals and doctors’ offices, Black women are less likely to be believed and listened to and their pain is less likely to be taken seriously. And at times, they may end up with unnecessary interventions, says Dara D. Mendez, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh who studies racial and socioeconomic inequities in women’s health. After childbirth, they may have less access to lactation support as well as screening and treatment for postpartum depression and anxiety, adds reproductive rights activist Jamila Perritt, M.D., an OB/GYN with Planned Parenthood in Washington D.C.

        “Racism exists in the healthcare system the same way it exists in every part of our lives,” says Dr. Perritt. And while the statistics on pregnancy and childbirth are certainly alarming, she emphasizes that these types of inequalities show up in every area of medicine. “Black people are more likely to die from heart disease, complications from diabetes, and liver disease, all because of structural racism in our society.”

        When a person is living “in a place where they’re more likely to shoot you down than read you your rights, where they sentence you at a higher rate than any other population in the country, that takes a toll on your health mentally—it's a wear and tear on the body that’s cumulative,” says Mendez. By the time a Black person becomes pregnant, she’s accumulated years of this stress, which has effects on the immune system, hormonal responses, and more. “These stressors and the cumulative experience of racism and sexism, especially during sensitive developmental periods, trigger a chain of biological processes, known as weathering, that undermine African American women’s physical and mental health,” reports the Center for American Progress. This can increase the risk for medical conditions that threaten mothers’ and babies’ lives.

        So what can be done, so the system doesn’t continue to fail women like Sha-Asia and countless other Black mothers? It requires solutions aimed at healthcare but also the structural and systemic racism throughout our institutions, say experts. The organizations below are fighting for health equity, working towards a world in which Sha-Asia's daughter will get the care she deserves.

        Black Mamas Matter Alliance: This national organization works to change and cultivate research to inform policy, advance care for Black mothers, and shift the cultural conversation on Black maternal health.

        • Healthy Start: This network of community-based organizations works to make sure all families have access to affordable, quality care. Mendez is involved with Healthy Start Pittsburgh. Look for a project in your state.

        • Local Doula Organizations: Local organizations need support, so look for ones that are focused on Black, Latinx, and indiginous women who may have limited access to doula support, advises Mendez. Roott is a Black woman-led organization that fights for reproductive justice and offers doula services and training.

        National Birth Equity Collaborative: With a vision of helping all Black mothers and babies thrive, NBEC works on policy advocacy, research, and community work to improve Black maternal and infant health.

        Planned Parenthood: The organization, where Dr. Perritt is a healthcare provider, “has always provided community support, regardless of people’s ability to pay for care,” she says.