By Adebukola Ajao, she/her
Nickey Nesbeth labored for 26 hours when a white nurse began to berate her.
"Why are you crying?" the nurse asked, as if giving birth in excruciating pain is unreasonable. Recalling her traumatic birthing experience, Nickey says, “I felt even worse at that point. I had never felt so disregarded as a human being. She couldn't wrap her head around the fact that a Black woman in labor for over 26 hours could possibly be feeling enough pain to cry.”
After suffering complications that resulted in a C-section birth, Nickey developed an infection in her breast. Instead of being treated with the respect and dignity of a new mother, she was met with scowling nurses and rude doctors throughout her seven day stay. When a nurse barely acknowledged her presence and slammed the door when she left the room, Nickey feared that she wouldn’t make it out of the hospital alive. So that they would not misdiagnose her, she often had to take it upon herself to remind nurses and doctors of her condition. This was 14 years ago. When Nickey, who is the Executive Director of Boston Girls Empowerment Network, shares this story now, she is still shaken by the experience. She has worked for over 20 years to educate girls and women on their overall wellbeing, emphasizing reproductive health to prevent other women from experiencing what she did.
This is a familiar story for many Black mothers, and it often doesn’t end well.
Black Maternity Mortality is the death of a Black woman as a result of pregnancy. The issue of Black Maternal Mortality is not a simple one; Black women are at risk in a myriad of ways and are dying at rates three times higher than white women due to pre-existing health conditions, lack of access to quality health insurance, racial bias, and discrimination.
The racial disparities in maternal outcomes are a legacy of enslavement, where Black women were frequent subjects of painful experiments and chattel breeding. Slave owners funded scientific “research” to manufacture evidence that Black women either didn't feel or were able to endure pain. They used this “evidence” to justify the enslavement of African people.
Black mothers have historically had less access to quality medical care and talk less of prenatal care.
“This fact for some may be [in] the very distant past, but for Black women, the lies told about our bodies and our ability to feel pain is our current reality. The white-centered medical community still believes these inhumane lies and treat us accordingly,” Nesbeth says. Black mothers, ultimately, have to save themselves.
More contemporary issues such as pre-existing health conditions like chronic stress, obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes, and access to quality health insurance are evident in Black maternal outcomes. Health insurance is important because it ensures Black mothers can secure access to reproductive health care. But even when Black women have access to resources, the question beckons—are they quality resources?
Black women dying as a result of pregnancy is a serious problem that requires serious and concerted efforts from the medical community. While there is overwhelming research and information, Black mothers need more access to it.
The Washington Post recently reported that the “Mortality rate for Black babies is cut dramatically when Black doctors care for them after birth.” If this method can work for babies, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Black medical professionals working with Black women can help reduce the maternal mortality rate. Teaching Black women how to communicate with doctors and advocate for themselves could save their lives.
BLACK FUTURES: Protecting Black Mothers
Black women have always fought for the medical community to listen to and take our pain seriously. Erica Chidi, a doula and women’s health educator, raised three million dollars to create Loom, a digital education platform that seeks to solve the problem of dissemination of information to at-risk Black women about maternal health. This highly-anticipated platform is set to be released this winter, but the need for Black women to get information about their reproductive health, maternity care, and overall sexual health is urgent. In the interim, Chidi and Dr. Erica Cahill created the “The Antiracist Prenatal and Postnatal Care Preferences” guide “to protect Black birthing women and people.” This information spread quickly across social media and acts as a cheat sheet for Black mothers to use when they're communicating with medical professionals. According to the Loom website, the guide was “designed to lessen the burden on Black women and build the groundwork for difficult but potentially life-preserving conversations with their care providers.”
Bringing human life into this world, as frequent as it is, is nothing short of a miracle. For Black mothers that miracle often turns into a curse. The solutions are not simple, but what is clear is that doctors and hospitals need to listen to Black women and take their pain seriously. Black mothers are dying at alarming rates due to childbirth, and research shows it can be prevented. Black women should never fear seeking medical attention due to the looming potential that she will not be taken seriously, and possibly die as a result.
The Black Maternal Health Caucus of the United States House of Representatives
More legislation needs to be passed to address Black maternal health as a public crisis. The Black Maternal Health Caucus of The United States House of Representatives recently proposed legislation to fight maternal mortality that every local and state government can similarly adopt. Calling your local leaders and state and congressional representatives to pass legislation like this can push the agenda forward.
Black doulas need to be encouraged and respected, and their support should be covered by hospitals and insurance companies. The use of Black doulas as support systems is proven to improve Black maternal health. In a case study reported by American Progress, Mamatoto Village, a non-profit in D.C serving Black women with perinatal care, offered training courses for community members to become licensed doulas and birth workers. In 2017, the Village experienced zero infant or maternal losses when Black and Brown mothers were paired with a supporting individual including a lactation consultant, doula, or trained community health care worker.
Imagine this type of progress on a large scale. When the risk of Black maternal mortality is addressed properly, the mortality rate will dramatically decrease, saving women’s lives.
Written by Adebukola Ajao for Youth To The People