Black Women Are Speaking Truth to Power Amid a Maternal Health Crisis

It's long past time that the government pay some meaningful attention to our spiking pregnancy-related death rate.

Black Women Are Speaking Truth to Power Amid a Maternal Health Crisis
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Kylah Laurent couldn’t breathe, and no one was listening.

During the birth of her firstborn son in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2019, Lauren says the anesthesiologists gave her significantly more than the amount of epidural she needed based on her body weight. She began having a visible adverse reaction to it. The epidural had risen to her upper body causing a paralyzing affect. Her face started to swell and her arms went limp. Laurent says she told the nurses she was having trouble swallowing and breathing, but the medical attendants in the room shrugged off her pain for hours.

“I told them I couldn’t feel my chest or my arms, and the nurse said, ‘That’s impossible, because that would mean we gave you too much epidural. You’re fine,’” Laurent recalled in an interview.

Eventually, Laurent says her entire face started to droop, she was shaking in her sleep, and her skin went pale. Her family and doula thought she was having a stroke, panicked, and begged someone to help her. It was only once her family “started screaming” that the nurses finally acknowledged that they’d given Laurent too much epidural, turned off the drip, and rushed an emergency c-section.

A year later, Laurent had a similarly terrifying experience, again involving too much epidural, during the birth of her second son. “I almost died during my first two babies,” Laurent told me. “I felt like I was in a horror movie when the old white anesthesiologist leaned over and flat-out told me he gave me too much epidural because it would ‘make me feel better’ after I had already told him not to.”

The bleak truth is that Laurent was one of the lucky ones in America: Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and their maternal mortality rates have been increasing in this country year after year. A new report out this week shows that Black women accounted 90 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Washington, D.C., between 2014 and 2018, despite making up on 45 percent of the city’s population. And the National Birth Equity Collaborative told Jezebel that the maternal mortality rate for Black women has increased from 44 to over 55 deaths per 100,000 from 2019 to 2020. “This means that nearly 1,000 women died of pregnancy-related causes in the midst of the worst global pandemic of our lifetimes,” the group said. The stifling mortality rates are extremely preventable with better medical care and improved anti-racist training, according to the CDC and the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity in their interview with Jezebel.

The only difference now is that Black women are starting to find strength in numbers and pour out their stories on social media to demand change. Earlier this month, from April 11th to 14th, marked the 5th Anniversary of the “Black Maternal Health Week,” a national awareness campaign originally founded by Black Mamas Matter Alliance. With over 10,000 participants, hundreds of events nationwide, and mass political involvement from prominent Black politicians like Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Lauren Underwood and activist Stacey Abrams, this year’s campaign has sparked a kind of black maternal health #MeToo moment, in which Black women become loud enough to collectively force those in power to finally pay some meaningful attention to America’s ongoing maternal health disparities.

The stories all have common threads: maternity negligence, doctors ignoring Black women’s pain, and general mistreatment that led to pregnancy complications and near-death experiences.

Black celebrities and politicians are also helping to use their platforms to expand the conversation with their vulnerable truths. New York state Senate candidate Kaegan Mays-Williams shared in a Twitter video that she almost lost her life bringing her daughter into the world in 2017. “The doctors decided to remove a large fibroid from my abdomen [during my c-section] without telling me,” she said, adding that she had to have multiple blood transfusions to stay alive.

Prominent Black activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham revealed her frightening birthing experienced to Undistracted podcast, and actress Cassandra Freeman shared with Jemele Hill that doctors also ignored her severe pain and blackened swollen toes—allegedly telling her, “We didn’t know it hurt that bad.”

Then, of course, Serena Williams recalled her harrowing pregnancy and childbirth experience in a viral news story, saying, “First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism. I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen.” These stories help dispel the myth that only women below the poverty line without access to resources and adequate care are affected by these alarming disparities, as ProPublica refuted in a 2017 study. In fact, highly educated women are actually more likely to experience maternal mortality and birthing complications, according to U.S. News.

If women like Williams and Beyonce suffer these issues during childbirth, even with access to top-tier health facilities and doctors, imagine what the inequities and unfair treatment that everyday Black mothers face. The CDC states that multiple factors contribute to these disparities, such as variation in quality healthcare, overlooked chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias.

There’s a reason this is all happening right now. “During the pandemic, we’ve literally seen Black people being killed in the street in broad daylight on national networks. We’ve seen folks try to take Black history out of school curriculums, and major conversations around the protection of Black women. What you’re seeing is a culmination of built up frustration and a dedication of put an end to mothers and babies dying,” Dr. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Ohio State University, told Jezebel.

The outpouring of stories appears to be having some impact on a national level. Vice President Harris openly acknowledged earlier this month that Black birth mortality is a “national crisis” and said the Biden Administration is now making it a priority. President Biden signed the first bill in the Momnibus Act of 2021 in the fall, with the help of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, and is expected to sign more.

“What better time to make major moves than when we have a Black Vice President speaking up about injustices that involve Black women. Why not now? This[Black maternal mortality] has been an issue for over 100 hundred years, since we’ve had data on Black birthing inequities. So 2022 is the year we’re all saying, no more,” Sealy- Jefferson told me.

The influx in testimonies this month is has lit a fire under the movement, and created a snowball of conversation and grassroots organizations efforts led by organizations such as Black Mamas Matter, National Birth Equity Collaborative, Mom’s Rising, and Sister Song. Attention on this problem is long overdue, as Black maternal mortality rates have been a glaring issue for the last century. And it’s not just the mothers who suffer: The March of Dimes report shows that Black children score the highest in infant mortality rate, C-section births, and inadequate prenatal care. As a result, Black women are increasingly seeking alternate means of care via doulas and midwives, because of the proven success rate in reducing maternal deaths. Frankly, Black women have started to mistrust American doctors and medical facilities altogether. “So sad Black women continue to be ignored. This should be the most positive, joyous time of their lives. That’s where we come in,” doula, Nylah Jimerson, told Jezebel.

The more Black women learn, the more we remain unsettled about bringing a new life into the world. It’s high time the nation listens to our stories and makes us a priority in the fight for reproductive justice.

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