It’s Time to Demand Action to Save Black Mothers & Babies
A Call to Black Women Everywhere.
By Lisa Peyton-Caire, CEO & President of The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness
Friends, April is Minority Health Month and home to national Black Maternal and Child Health Week, which is observed each year from April 11-17th. This is a critical time to talk about a pressing issue that deserves our immediate attention – the health of Black mothers and babies.
Like many of you in the Ashro community, I am a mother who has experienced the joys and challenges of pregnancy and childbirth. I have thankfully birthed five healthy babies over the course of my life. I remember the intense emotions of meeting each precious little person and taking them home to begin the journey of nurturing them and watching them grow. Indeed, bringing our babies into the world should be a time of great joy and celebration.
But imagine if those babies were at risk of not living to see their first birthday, or that you or your daughter, sister or best girlfriend were at risk risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications shortly after giving birth. These are scary and sobering thoughts. Unfortunately, Black women and babies are facing these alarming dangers right now across the United States, and it’s time to pay attention and take serious action.
Black Maternal and Child Health in the United States is in a State of Emergency
Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, spending more on healthcare and hospital-based maternity care than any other country, the United States has the worst maternal and child health outcomes among developed countries. African American women and our babies are bearing the greatest risks.
Right now in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white mothers, and the U.S. infant mortality rate (number of babies who die before their first birthday) among Black babies is more than twice as high as it is for white babies. Here in Wisconsin where the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness is based, the infant mortality rate increases to 3x higher for Black babies, with Black mothers facing a 5x higher maternal mortality rate than white mothers.
The most sobering illustration of this crisis came in one of our community meetings with Black mothers and fathers when a local pastor shared that seven families in her congregation had lost eight babies, either at birth or shortly afterwards, during the past seven years. Two of the babies died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the others from complications related to premature birth or unknown causes. The families are still struggling with the immense grief and loss of these unspeakable casualties.
What is even more concerning is that Black women, despite income, education level or access to healthcare, are still more likely to experience complications or death in their pregnancies and births than our white peers. In fact, Black women with a college degree are more likely to die in childbirth than a white mother with less than a high school diploma.
These circumstances require our immediate attention and massive efforts, personally and collectively, to address the causes.
What Is Causing the Black Maternal Health Crisis?
The causes of America’s alarming Black birth disparities are many. Among them are more limited access to healthcare or health insurance, pre-existing chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity that contribute to complications, or lifestyle habits like poor nutrition or smoking that put mother and baby more at risk. However, increasingly more research, including our own, points to very clear root causes, namely the stress of racism and its toll on Black women’s health and bodies, and medical bias that leaves Black mothers at greater risk of receiving inadequate care throughout their pregnancy journey.
Stories of Black women celebrities like Serena Williams and Beyonce, who both faced life-threatening circumstances during their birthing experiences, have highlighted the gravity of the issue. As women of means with access to the best care and resources, even they were not protected from the potential casualties in the delivery room.
And heartbreaking stories like Kira Johnson, a 39-year-old healthy pregnant mother of one who died on April 13, 2016, one day after giving birth to her second child, has literally brought the issue to national visibility. Kira’s husband, Charles Johnson IV, has taken his fight to the halls of Congress, successfully advocating with the help of Black women legislators and allies to pass the Maternal Mortality Prevention Bill in 2019. The bill allocates funding in all 50 states for maternal health review committees to collect data on what is killing women during or after childbirth.
What Are We Doing About It: Black Women Leading the Way
On the frontlines of the push to bring more attention and accountability to addressing our unacceptable maternal and child health outcomes are Black women.
Thanks to organizations like the Black Mamas Matters Alliance, the National Birth Equity Collaborative, and SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective, the Black Women’s Health Imperative and our own organization, the issue of Black birth disparities is gaining the national attention it deserves as a major public health crisis.
In 2019, Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood of Illinois launched the Black Maternal Health Caucus with 53 founding members. The group has now grown to become one of the largest bipartisan caucuses in Congress, with more than 100 members, and is leading the charge alongside community and organizational advocates across the United States to drive policy changes that improve Black maternal health outcomes and end disparities.
Mirroring these national efforts, we have helped launch Wisconsin’s first Black Maternal and Child Health Alliance, and are working to drive change in Black birth outcomes in our county and state where we lead the nation in Black infant mortality and an alarming racial maternal mortality gap. Our efforts are gaining traction.
Learn More & Take Action
The health of our communities is best measured by the well-being of our children, and their mothers. By this measure, and in the case of Black babies, we have urgent and considerable work to do. We must keep looking for viable, sustainable and community-driven solutions that will turn the tide towards healthier birth outcomes for Black women and their babies. This work can’t wait.
To learn more and to get involved, participate in Black Maternal Health Week on April 11–17th, and visit our website at www.ffbww.org/savingourbabies .
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Thank you to Lisa from the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness
for sharing her thoughts and knowledge with the Ashro customer.
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