Kira Johnson died after a c-section, slowly bleeding to death as she begged for help. Medical providers told her she wasn’t a priority. Amber Isaac died following an emergency c-section, isolated from her partner, after complaining about the treatment she received. Lashonda Hazard sought emergency care for intense stomach pain. She texted a friend that she was “literally dying” before being sent home without care. Both Hazard and her baby died.
All three were healthy, and had no reason to believe childbirth would kill them. The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate in the wealthy world, largely because it is killing so many Black women.
Thousands of Americans have put their bodies on the line to stand up for Black lives in recent weeks. But some activists, especially Black women, have questioned why women’s deaths, such as the murder of first responder Breonna Taylor, garner less attention. In addition to these women, every year hundreds of Black women die giving birth or soon after.
Research consistently shows that racism is the primary culprit here. Yet this crisis continues to go ignored—by the people who claim that all lives matter (but inexplicably not Black lives), by the “pro-life” people who protest outside of abortion clinics and ignore the epidemic of mothers dying, and by media pundits who weaponize the same victim-blaming against Black mothers that police use against Black men and women killed in custody.
The Terrifying State of Maternity Care for Black Families
In 2019, 63.8 Black women per 100,000 died giving birth. This makes it more dangerous for a Black woman to give birth in the United States than it is for women to give birth in 100 other countries—including El Salvador, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Palestine.
Things are getting worse, not better. An American woman giving birth today is 50 percent more likely to die giving birth than her mother was a generation ago. Virtually every other nation on the globe has seen maternal mortality reductions, with some European nations lowering their pregnancy death rate to nearly zero. The United States is the clear outlier here. And it’s not because we have a different type of woman, or because something has fundamentally changed about women in the past 20 years. It’s because our maternity care system is collapsing, and taking on the racist values of the society that surrounds it.
Blaming Women for Their Own Deaths
Media reports often focus on unhealthy lifestyles or urge women to become better advocates for themselves. It’s a trend that caused The New York Times to assert that America is blaming women for their own deaths. A report from various maternal mortality review committees paints a much different picture. Provider, institutional, or hospital factors cause 61.8 percent of maternal deaths. Researchers consistently document significant racism in maternity care, so the role of health systems in Black women’s deaths is likely much higher.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of maternal deaths are preventable. For example, seventy percent of hemorrhages—the leading cause of maternal death—can be prevented, and individual health or lifestyle factors do not predict hemorrhage. Stories of hemorrhages often feature women begging for care as doctors ignore them.
Racism is Driving the Maternal Mortality Epidemic
So what’s behind this maternal mortality crisis, if it’s not health differences or economic barriers? All signs point to institutional racism.
Corrinna Edwards, a midwife and the founder of the Bellies to Babies Foundation, says that her clients routinely experience racism and care delays.
"There have been several occasions when I'm serving a black family or a mother calls our 24/7 helpline when they have been ignored by the hospital or staff. I have witnessed preventable near death experiences because of racism, ignorance, and arrogance.
“It's not genetics. That’s a racist thing to say. it's systemic racism and weathering of the Black family from the allostatic-stressors that come with just being Black. I do not see this as often with white mothers. Anything from a provider not believing a mother's complaints to not believing events she shares that led her to go to the hospital in the first place, can harm Black mothers and babies. If a mother tells you her waters have been gone for several hours or that she is having severe back pain, don't blow it off. Retest and get a second opinion. It can save her life,” Edwards said.
Stories of Black women facing care delays or doctors who do not believe them are not mere anecdote. The data evidences a pattern of racist abuse. Consider these alarming statistics:
- Twenty-one percent of Black women say they experienced racism when seeking care for pregnancy complications. A 2019 analysis identified numerous highly prevalent forms of racism in hospital delivery rooms.
- Doctors underestimate Black people’s pain. This may cause them to ignore obvious symptoms of a medical emergency.
- A third of birth workers say they have heard doctors use racist or ethnically demeaning language.
- Doctors continue to believe racist myths about Black people. One study found that about half of medical residents endorsed racist stereotypes such as the idea that Black people feel less pain. Another study found that doctors viewed Black patients as less responsible for their health than white patients, and less likely to improve.
- Hospitals that predominantly serve Black families offer lower quality care. They have higher rates of unnecessary c-sections,
- Doctors are more likely to call child protective services on Black families, especially when those families question care decisions.
This crisis can end, but only when we begin holding healthcare providers and systems responsible for their implicit biases and systemic racism. Black mothers matter.
If you want to help, here are some organizations already doing the work. Please consider joining them, donating to them, volunteering, or promoting their labor: