By Jaelyn Copeland (Community Health and Human Services Student), with contributions from Shayna Bryan (Intern & Community Health and Human Services Student)
Maternal mortality rates in the United States have been increasing steadily year after year, placing the country 56th on the World Health Organization’s worldwide data set, which is near the bottom of the developed nations. This disproportionately affects black women, who face not only the typical health hazards that come with childbirth, but must also wrestle with racial bias in the medical industry
Did you know black women are three times more likely to die due to pregnancy-linked causes than their peers?
According to the CDC, for every 100,000 births, 37 black women died in comparison to 15 white women and 12 Hispanic women. The causes of these racial differences are numerous. One of the issues is a lack of access to health care and poor quality of service. However, CDC data shows that even college-educated black women die at higher rates from pregnancy-related causes than white women who did not graduate from high school.
Look no further than Serena Williams, one of the greatest professional tennis players in history and an overall acclaimed athlete with a net worth over $200 million, whose pregnancy story demonstrates that these issues penetrate every level of society. In an interview with Vogue, Williams recalls battling with major problems shortly after the birth of her daughter. After her daughter was born through Cesarean section, Williams became short of breath. Knowing her own history of blood clots in the lungs (called pulmonary embolisms), she instantly alerted a nurse to her symptoms. However, staff were slow to respond to her concerns. The resulting complications ended in Williams needing a filter inserted into one of her major veins. It took six weeks of bed rest before she eventually returned home.
Serena’s traumatic story places her among the 50,000 women in America who face dangerous or life-threatening pregnancy-related problems each year.
However, researchers suggest this estimate may still be too conservative. Racial bias in the medical industry is a systemic issue that is becoming more recognized. The CDC has launched the Hear Her campaign to spread awareness and education on the complications associated with pregnancy. The lesson for the medical industry is to listen to patients more and make sure their needs are addressed. For the rest of us, the lesson is to learn to be your own best advocate.
Here are steps you can take:
- Enroll in pre-natal care early, 1 month before pregnancy if possible
- Take pre-natal vitamins as early as possible, even before becoming pregnant
- Vitamins like folate are essential to brain and spinal cord development which occurs during the first few weeks of pregnancy
- Learn the warning signs of common complications, particularly those you are at high risk for and those in your family medical history
- Check out the CDC’s list of Urgent Maternal Warning Signs
- Make stress management a priority
- Speak up!
- Create a list of questions to ask your doctor, make your concerns heard!
- Keep a written record to help you and your doctor stay on track and accountable during appointments
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, November 25). Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternal-mortality/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 24). About the Campaign. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hearher/about-the-campaign/index.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 11). Urgent Maternal Warning Signs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hearher/maternal-warning-signs/index.html.
Fernandez, M. E. (2021, February 10). Why Black women are less likely to survive pregnancy, and what’s being done about it. http://www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2021/02/10/why-black-women-are-less-likely-to-survive-pregnancy-and-whats-being-done-about-it.
Haskell, R. (2018, January 10). Serena Williams on Motherhood, Marriage, and Making Her Comeback. Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/serena-williams-vogue-cover-interview-february-2018.
Lockhart, P. R. (2018, January 11). What Serena Williams’s scary childbirth story says about medical treatment of black women. Vox. http://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/11/16879984/serena-williams-childbirth-scare-black-women.
Testino, M. (September 2017). Photograph of Serena Williams. Vogue.
WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank Group, and United Nations Population Division Trends in Maternal Mortality: 2000 to 2017 Geneva: World Health Organization, 2019. Retrieved from: https://data.worldbank.