Black Maternal Health Disparities and the Journey to Equity

In the quiet hallways of maternal wards and within the bustling spaces of community centers, a silent crisis lingers—a crisis disproportionately shadowing the lives of black women. The harsh reality of maternal mortality rates among black women in the United States is not just a statistic; it’s a heartbreaking reflection of deep-rooted systemic inequities and overlooked narratives.

As these women stand at the crossroads of hope and uncertainty, carrying new life within them, they also bear the weight of a troubling legacy—one where their health and wellbeing are often marginalized. This crisis, a blend of medical, social, and racial dimensions, calls for more than just clinical solutions; it demands a thorough reevaluation of how society views and supports the maternal journey of black women. 

When we talk about the health of black mothers and their babies, we’re delving into a topic that’s layered with complexity. It’s not just about medical care; it’s about how a web of social, economic, and cultural factors intertwine to create a unique set of challenges.

The roots of racism in healthcare can be traced back to slavery in the United States. During this era, black people were often subjected to medical experimentation without consent. One of the most notorious examples is that of J. Marion Sims, often referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” who conducted experimental surgeries on enslaved black women without anesthesia. These historical events have left a legacy of distrust in the healthcare system among many in the black community.

Following the abolition of slavery, segregation laws and Jim Crow policies further perpetuated unequal healthcare access and treatment for black Americans. Hospitals were segregated, and black patients were often denied care in white facilities or received substandard care in black-only facilities. These practices laid the groundwork for ongoing disparities in healthcare.

  1. The Economic Hurdle: Let’s start with the basics – money and resources. It’s no secret that your wallet size often dictates the quality of healthcare you can access. For many black women, economic barriers stand tall. From affording health insurance to juggling job schedules to make prenatal appointments – the hurdles can seem endless. And it doesn’t stop there. Imagine living in a place where fresh food is a luxury and your environment is working against your health. These are everyday realities for some, and they significantly impact maternal and infant health.
  2. Navigating a Biased System: Now, let’s talk about the healthcare system. It’s like navigating a complicated maze, especially if you feel the system wasn’t designed with you in mind. Black women often encounter a healthcare world riddled with biases. This can range from not being taken seriously about their symptoms to facing a lack of empathy from medical professionals. And when your doctor doesn’t look like you or understand your background, it can create a gap in trust and communication.
  3. The Health Factor: Preexisting conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes are more prevalent in the black community. These conditions add an extra layer of risk to pregnancies but are often magnified by the social and economic issues we just talked about.
  4. The Weight of Stress: Here’s something we don’t talk about enough – the stress of being a black woman in today’s world. The constant undercurrent of racism, discrimination, and microaggressions takes a toll. It’s not just about feeling stressed; it’s about how this stress physically impacts both mothers and their babies.

Knowledge is Power

Education is a game-changer. But, when access to education is unequal, it affects how women manage their health during pregnancy. Health literacy isn’t just jargon; it’s about knowing how to navigate the health system, understanding your body, and being able to advocate for yourself and your baby. 

 

Early and Regular Prenatal Care: Seeking prenatal care as soon as pregnancy is confirmed is crucial. Regular check-ups allow healthcare providers to monitor the pregnancy and address any issues early on.

 

Birth Plan Preparation: Preparing a birth plan and discussing it with healthcare providers can ensure that a woman’s preferences are understood and considered, especially in situations where quick decisions may be needed. 

 

Education and Advocacy: Educating oneself about the risks and signs of pregnancy-related complications (like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and preterm labor) is vital. Learn the warning signs of when to seek Emergency Care. These symptoms include severe headache, extreme swelling of hands or face, trouble breathing, heavy vaginal bleeding or discharge, overwhelming tiredness, and more. These symptoms could indicate a potentially life-threatening complication.

 

Lifestyle Adjustments: Adopting a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding harmful substances (like tobacco and alcohol), can significantly reduce pregnancy risks.

 

Stress Management: Chronic stress is a significant health risk factor. Engaging in stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation, or counseling can be beneficial. Building a strong support network with family, friends, or support groups can also help.

 

What Heartland Community Health Center is doing to reduce health inequities among Black and Brown people experiencing pregnancy:

 
 

 

Picture of Victoria Cable, CCMA

Victoria Cable, CCMA

Health, Equity & Belonging Coordinator
Certified Clinical Medical Assistant

Hear from Victoria Cable, a health equity & belonging expert, on how health disparities impact people of color during and after pregnancy. Keep watching for what you can do to combat these disparities!