Black mothers matter
Life | High maternal mortality rates among African American women spark questions
by Leah Hickman
Posted 10/19/20, 04:03 pm
Twenty-six year old Sha-Asia Washington, a pregnant black woman, died this July while undergoing a cesarean section at a New York City hospital. Friends and family blamed Washington’s death on the negligence of the medical providers, who family members said pressured her into and improperly administered an epidural. The tragedy sparked local protests, and activists pointed to the situation as an example of racism in the healthcare system, a factor some say contributes to disproportionately high rates of maternal deaths among black women.
The most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the mortality rate for pregnant African American women is about three times higher than for white women. While racism in patient-provider relationships could contribute to the disparity, laypeople and medical professionals say the problem reflects other societal trends, as well, including abortion.
“I’ve been seeing posts on social media saying never to let a white doctor deliver a black woman’s baby,” user EmilyIrene, who said she is biracial, posted in a forum on WhatToExpect.com in September. “… I’m just curious to know why people say that?”
Users gave mixed responses, some echoing concerns of racial inequality. “Doctors view black women as … ‘tougher’ [and] can handle pain more [and] totally disregard them when they say something doesn’t feel right,” wrote user DesiiiK1.
User NWTU2010, who identified herself as a black woman, told a different story: “My best OB experience was with a white male, I personally don’t think just [because] you have a black doctor it guarantees a good experience. But I do agree that black women are often unheard or their concerns are ignored.”
Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians (AAPLOG) and Gynecologists, said she did not doubt racism contributed to poorer maternal outcomes in some cases.
“I’m sure there are individual doctors who are racist. I’m sure that that exists,” she said. “I think you need to drill down a little bit deeper rather than accuse the entire medical profession of being racist.”
Mortality among U.S. mothers of all demographics has risen since the early 2000s, likely due to the increasing average age of mothers and the growing number of chronic health conditions that comes with a rise in the average body mass index of U.S. women. Harrison pointed to a data point that could partially explain the disproportionately high death rates of pregnant African American women: Their abortion rate is more than three times that of white women.
“If you have an abortion, you increase your rate of preterm birth,” Harrison said. “Preterm birth can be more complicated. You also increase your rate of placental spectral disorders … where the placenta grows into the muscle wall of the uterus. Women with [these disorders] have a higher rate of dying from hemorrhage in childbirth.”
Even though African American families make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, black mothers account for 38 percent of all documented U.S. abortions. Abortion businesses like Planned Parenthood contribute to the high ratio by targeting minority communities. Pro-life groups such as Life Issues Institute have found almost 80 percent of abortion facilities are within 2 miles of predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods. The views of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who believed in race-based eugenics, affect the abortion industry today. “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” Sanger wrote to fellow eugenicist Clarence Gamble in 1939.
Existing data do not allow for establishing a true statistical correlation between abortion and maternal mortality among African Americans. “The total number of legal abortions performed in the U.S. is not known,” an AAPLOG committee reported in August 2019. “Estimated numbers of abortions are voluntarily reported to the CDC by state health departments.”
Some states, such as California, don’t report abortion numbers at all. Harrison called the lack of data unacceptable: “Black women deserve to know the real causes … a real, scientific answer as to why the black maternal mortality rate is higher.”
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