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Black Mothers Are at a Greater Risk for Birth Complications and Death: Here’s What You Can Do About It

Being an expecting mother is a journey with numerous ups and downs, and nobody should have to do it without the proper support. Unfortunately, certain communities don’t have access to the same resources as others, which is why it’s of utmost importance to make a concerted effort to educate ourselves and advocate for mothers in marginalised communities. This is the idea behind the Black Mamas Matter Alliance-founded Black Maternal Health Week, a movement created to raise awareness about the problems of maternal mortality and morbidity in the Black community and amplify the voices of Black women and mothers. 

In this article, we’ll share with you about this amazing, important movement, what it is, why it exists, why you should care about it, and what you can do to promote it. Because mums of all backgrounds are amazing and none of us should stand idly by in the face of injustice that certain mothers experience as a result of their race. 

What is Black Maternal Health Week?

Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW) is “a week of education and advocacy around the experiences of Black Mamas.” Led by Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), BMHW takes place in mid-April during the United States’ National Minority Health Month. It is held both virtually and in-person, with events aiming to uplift Black-women-led entities and raise awareness of poor maternal health outcomes in Black communities, their causes, and what concrete policies, programmes, and solutions exist.

In 2020, events were held around topics such as Black Maternal Health and the U.S. COVID-19 Response and Shifting and Advancing Black Maternal Health Policy. This year, Black Maternal Health Week 2021 will be the fourth annual BMHW. Attendees are encouraged to support and engage with local events held by BMMA’s partner organizations, which are “existing Black-women led organizations and individuals whose work is deeply rooted in reproductive justice, birth justice, and the human rights framework.” In order to stay up to date about how to participate in BMHW, it’s recommended that you follow BMMA on Twitter and sign up for their newsletter.

Why We Need Black Maternal Health Week

The primary goal of Black Maternal Health Week is to educate about and advocate for what is an unfortunately overlooked issue. In fact, it is so overlooked that you may not immediately realize just how much an advocacy event like this is needed. But the reality is that Black women face very serious obstacles to accessing proper maternal health care, which leads to poor maternal health outcomes and ongoing racial disparities.

For example, a recent January 2021 report showed that Black women in the United Kingdom are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth. They are at a greater risk of their baby dying in the womb or soon after birth, and of severe, long-term health problems.

In the United States, Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women and are more likely to experience preventable maternal death compared with white women, regardless of income and education level. They suffer more often from health complications like fibroids, preeclampsia, and risky pregnancy. Black-serving hospitals, where 75% of Black women give birth, have higher rates of maternal complications than other hospitals and, as a whole, Black women have a harder time accessing  reproductive health care like contraceptive care and counselling. 

And the Coronavirus pandemic has only brought this issue into focus even more as ethnic minority women with systemic biases against them disproportionately suffered. In the UK, during the Covid-19 pandemic, 55% of pregnant women admitted to hospitals with coronavirus were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

The implications here are clear: a pregnant, Black woman is much less likely to have a safe, healthy, and successful pregnancy and delivery than her white counterpart, something that is both outrageous and unacceptable. Advocacy initiatives like Black Maternal Health Week, which aims to takes concrete action such as change policy, fund research, advance care, and shift the culture by amplifying unheard voices are a critical part of the effort to help resolve this issue.

Stories You Need to Hear

One of the goals of BMHW is to amplify the voices of Black mamas who have faced discrimination and challenges in their journeys, and as part of this effort, we want to share a few birth stories that we believe deserve to be heard. After all, the statistics you’ve read above are more than just a collection of numbers. They represent real women who are directly affected by the racial disparities that exist in the maternal healthcare system.

Like Tinuke Awe, co-founder of campaign group Fivexmore, who was only diagnosed with preeclampsia at her 38-week check-up, when it was already a matter of immediately going to the hospital because her life was in danger. Despite crying out in agonizing pain in the hospital waiting room, Awe was dismissed and ignored. By the time she was rushed to a delivery room, already on the verge of giving birth, Awe was too tired to push and her son was delivered via forceps. As she explains, Awe “was just left feeling like [she] didn’t matter, that no one really cared about [her.]”

Or Allyson Felix, the only woman to win six Olympic track and field gold medals, for whom giving birth was “two most terrifying days of [her] life.” Felix had a case of severe preeclampsia leading to an emergency Caesarean section only 32 weeks into her pregnancy in November 2018, only ten hours after she was informed at a routine prenatal appointment that her daughter had an irregular heartbeat and that they both were both at risk. Felix’s daughter had to spend the following month in a newborn intensive care unit. Had she known that Black women were nearly three times more likely to die from birthing complications than white women, Felix says, “maybe I would’ve had better questions to ask. Maybe when I first saw my swollen feet, I would’ve rushed in.”

Tragically, Lieutenant Commander Shalon Irving, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a CDC epidemiologist, wasn’t as lucky as Felix. Just three weeks after giving birth to her daughter in 2016, Irving suffered complications from high blood pressure and died in February 2017 at only 36 years old. Wanda Irving, Shalon’s mother who is now raising her child, says "If race were not the precursor to how people are dealt with in the health care system, I know this outcome would have been drastically different.”

Improving Health Outcomes for Black Mamas

That it is necessary to improve health outcomes for black mums is clear, but the question of how we can do so is more complicated. One of Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s key goals is exploring, introducing, and enhancing holistic and comprehensive approaches to Black mamas’ care. As such BMMA provides technical assistance and training for maternity care service providers like clinicians, midwives, doula networks, and community health workers. 

Because what we have seen is that year after year, decade after decade, the traditional healthcare system fails Black mothers. In order to create change, we must take a multi-faceted approach that focuses on Black women’s health before, during, and after pregnancy, improving access to high-quality care and addressing the racial biases in healthcare. 

This means expanding and maintaining access to health insurance coverage, providing patient-centred care that focuses on Black women’s individualized needs, identifying and eradicating biases and discrimination in medical practice and medical education, and expanding and protecting access to quality, patient-centred and comprehensive reproductive health care and community providers such as those mentioned above.

Why You Should Care

There is no denying that all of the work mentioned above is a tall order. But nobody ever said that change was easy. That is why it is necessary for people like you and organizations like ours to learn, care, and mobilise about these issues. Black maternal health is not just a Black women’s issue. It is a women’s rights issue, a human rights issue, a reproductive justice issue, and a birth justice issue. It is a matter of every mother’s unalienable right to respectful, equitable, comprehensive, safe reproductive healthcare. It is a matter of life and death. As mothers ourselves - even just as human beings - it is incumbent upon us to care and to act.

How to Support the Black Mama Community Near You

As we said above, it’s not just a matter of giving a damn, although that is where it starts. If we care about maternal mental health, respectful maternity care, human rights, and social justice, we can’t just read these stories, shake our heads, and say, “that is so sad.” It’s equally important to take action. 

The good news is that there are many things you can do. First, you can download the Black Mamas Matter toolkit, “a resource for advocates who are concerned about the health and well-being of black women and girls,” created by the Centre for Reproductive Rights in partnership with members of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. 

Another option is to reach out to your local policymakers about supporting policies that address the maternal health crisis, as well as publicly support those politicians who already do. You can speak out on social media, shop products whose proceeds go toward supporting mothers of colour, and attend events

You can also donate to various organizations, including but not limited to:

And, of course, it takes no money at all to begin within your own community by reaching out and offering help to the Black mamas in your own life. From a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on, and a kind heart, to help with childcare and transportation to and from healthcare appointments, it’s always a good idea to ask what you can do to help.

What We’re Doing

We’re not here just to preach to you about what we think you should be doing. At Loly&Lykke, we firmly believe in our mission of providing mothers worldwide with fresh ways to take control of their individual motherhood experience, and that’s why it’s so important for us to empower mums of all races and support black mums, before, during, and after Black Maternal Health Week. 

For starters, we work with and give back to Every Mother Counts to aid their efforts in making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere, including marginalized groups. We have also launched the Pregnancy, Birth & Beyond series in partnership with Modern Midwife Marie Louise to empower all mums to be their own birth boss. And our Ask our Expert service is a free of charge, trustworthy, discreet consultancy service available for all mums in our community with the goal of offering accessible, evidence-based information to empower all mums.

We believe that Black mamas matter, and we believe that our actions in support of them are both necessary and important. What about you?