Thursday, April 19, 2018
Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis
The New York Times Magazine (April 11, 2018): Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis, by Linda Villarosa:
Villarosa of The New York Times Magazine profiles several black mothers and their pregnancy, child birth, and health care stories while exploring the extraordinarily wide disparity in care that black women receive compared to white women.
The U.S. is one of only 12 countries whose maternal mortality rates have actually increased in recent years and now has a mortality rate worse than 25 years ago. Maternal mortality refers to "the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy." Women of color are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.
Moms are not the only ones facing the consequences of underdeveloped care.
Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.
In the past, many explanations for the disparity turned to poverty, assuming that it was poor and uneducated black women and their babies that suffered the most. But the crisis does not consider class lines, it turns out. "In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education."
In 2014, Monica Simpson--the executive director of SisterSong, an organization dedicated to reproductive justice for women of color, and a member of advocacy group Black Mamas Matter Alliance-- testified before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She called on the United States to “eliminate racial disparities in the field of sexual and reproductive health and standardize the data-collection system on maternal and infant deaths in all states to effectively identify and address the causes of disparities in maternal- and infant-mortality rates.” That the United States has not done so is a violation of the international human rights treaty, she says.
This is important for many reasons, one of which is the dramatic effect that society and systemic racism have on a pregnant person's "toxic physiological stress levels." This stress increases the chances for hypertension, pre-eclampsia, and other dangerous pregnancy complications, and it is exacerbated by the pervasive, systemic racial bias embedded in the United States' health care system. Racial bias, discrimination, and the toll it takes on women of color throughout their lives and pregnancy contributes to increased maternal complications across all class and education levels.
Even when controlling for income and education, African-American women had the highest allostatic load scores — an algorithmic measurement of stress-associated body chemicals and their cumulative effect on the body’s systems — higher than white women and black men. ...Though it seemed radical 25 years ago, few in the field now dispute that the black-white disparity in the deaths of babies is related not to the genetics of race but to the lived experience of race in this country.
Community care systems that incorporate the medical and personal support of doulas and midwives have proven to increase black women's chances at a healthy pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum experience.
"One of the most important roles that doulas play is as an advocate in the medical system for their clients." A doula may sometimes be the only person consistently present with the mom-to-be during her birth experience, too. One study of 2,400 women found that "more than a quarter of black women meet their birth attendants for the first time during childbirth, compared with 18 percent of white women."
Doulas “are a critical piece of the puzzle in the crisis of premature birth, infant and maternal mortality in black women.”
Rachel Zaslow, a midwife and doula in Charlottesville, Virginia established Sisters Keeper--a collective of 45 black and Latina doulas in Charlottesville. They offer free birthing services to women of color.
'The doula model is very similar to the community health worker model that’s being used a lot, and successfully, throughout the global South,' Zaslow says. 'For me, when it comes to maternal health, the answer is almost always some form of community health worker.' Since 2015, the Sisters Keeper doulas have attended about 300 births — with no maternal deaths and only one infant death among them.
An analysis of a similar program in New York City showed that, over a five-year period, moms receiving the support of the doula program experience half as many preterm and low-weight babies compared to other community members.