Mothers dying during pregnancy and childbirth is a crisis most Americans believe impacts only countries experiencing extreme poverty with shortages of food, health care providers, medicine, water and housing.
Most people think of developing or war-torn nations where there are inadequate hospitals and little government infrastructure. But when it comes to maternal health and mortality in the United States, we need to think again.
This deadly reality unfolds in the apartheidlike health outcomes experienced by black women, in which the difference between life and death for a mother and her newborn is too often determined by the color of her skin. The maternal mortality rates among black women in the United States are simply terrifying: Black women are between three and four times more likely (pdf) to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Shockingly, these numbers hold true across all education levels, even after controlling for differences in socioeconomic status. It is this disproportionate risk that black women face during pregnancy and childbirth that drives the maternal mortality crisis in the United States, in which black mothers and their babies experience rates of death and disease virtually nonexistent in most developed nations.
Across race, the maternal mortality rates in the United States are already at alarming levels: According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. is one of only 13 countries in the world where pregnancy-related deaths are actually on the rise, and it has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. In fact, American women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than women in 45 other countries, including the United Kingdom and much poorer nations like Libya and Kazakhstan.
The crisis in this country is getting worse: Both the likelihood of experiencing a severe pregnancy complication and dying from it are on the rise (pdf).
If the state of maternal care in the U.S. is abysmal for America’s women, the health care system fails black mothers and their babies the most. Our nation’s enduring legacy of systematic racism against black people has deep roots in virtually every sector of society—including health.
Racial health disparities are as wide as they were in the 1930s, and let us not forget this country’s history of using and abusing black female bodies at the expense of their reproductive health. From a brutal system of slavery and segregation that robbed black women the chance of healthy motherhood to Jim Crow-era forced sterilization and inhumane gynecological medical experimentation, black mothers’ human …