Saving mothers' lives: Christian call to end racism
As we continue to celebrate Mothers, we're taking a look at some of the steps we can take to help prevent deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth. This is part 4, addressing the sin of racism.
Mother’s Day was Sunday, May 13. As we continue to celebrate our mothers, the mothers in our communities and the mothers of our faith, we must also recognize that we have a problem. Too many women are dying as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. And, many of these deaths are preventable.
We’ve discussed several ways to break barriers to care. We’ve explored best practices for quality care. And we’ve talked about the best ways to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us.
There is one glaring fact we’ve not yet addressed: the role race plays in health outcomes. We must deal with the fact that black mothers are 243 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women.
There are wealth and education disparities between white women and black women in the U.S., but these disparities alone do not account for the massive increase in risk for black women. Wealthy and educated black women are still more likely to suffer severe complication than working-class white women who don’t have high school diplomas.
One study found that while white and black women in the U.S. experienced five life-threatening pregnancy-related complications, black women with these conditions were two-to-three times more likely to die.
This isn’t only true with pregnancy. Black women are significantly more likely to die from cervical cancer and heart disease.
As Linda Villarosa noted in The New York Times,
“People of color, particularly black people, are treated differently the moment they enter the health care system. In 2002, the groundbreaking report ‘Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,’ published by a division of the National Academy of Sciences, took an exhaustive plunge into 100 previous studies, careful to decouple class from race, by comparing subjects with similar income and insurance coverage. The researchers found that people of color were less likely to be given appropriate medications for heart disease, or to undergo coronary bypass surgery, and received kidney dialysis and transplants less frequently than white people, which resulted in higher death rates. Black people were 3.6 times as likely as white people to have their legs and feet amputated as a result of diabetes, even when all other factors were equal. One study analyzed in the report found that cesarean sections were 40 percent more likely among black women compared with white women.”
Something other than class is at play. Anti-black racism is killing black moms.
Implicit or explicit bias
Racism is a sin. Many of us want to distance ourselves from its destructive history. Yet, racism endures, and we have a moral responsibility to dismantle it.
Many medical practitioners place blame for the disproportionate rates of African-American maternal and infant deaths on mother’s decision-making rather than implicit bias within the medical system. Women and girls in every racial and ethnic group experience poverty, engage in premarital sex, smoke, are obese, have diabetes and skip prenatal visits. Why then were black women being blamed for being more likely to die as a result of childbirth?
But, as Nina Martin of ProPublica and Renee Montagne of NPR News report, black women repeatedly told stories about “medical providers who equated being African-American with being poor, uneducated, noncompliant and unworthy.”
These biases might not be intentional, but the impact of the lives of black mothers is evident in the data and their stories.
Black women’s bodies are being worn down more quickly because of the dual oppressions of sexism and racism. Health researchers have developed a term for this wearing down: weathering.
The stress of living in an oppressive society has physical consequences on black women’s bodies. Again from Villarosa in The New York Times:
“When a person is faced with a threat, the brain responds to the stress by releasing a flood of hormones, which allow the body to adapt and respond to the challenge. When stress is sustained, long-term exposure to stress hormones can lead to wear and tear on the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems, making the body vulnerable to illness and even early death.”
The cumulative effect of this stress means black women have poorer health outcomes.
Ending Racial Disparities
White supremacy, whether intentional or not, causes the deaths of black mothers and babies.
The National Partnership for Women and Families has outlined specific recommendations to address disparities for black women. Several of their recommendations are included in previous posts in this series. Two in particular center on black women:
“Public policies and medical practice should incentivize providing patient-centered care that focuses on Black women’s individualized needs, including non-clinical, social needs. Moreover, policies should endeavor to eradicate cultural biases and discrimination in medical practice and medical education, increase provider diversity in maternity care and hold individual providers and hospital systems accountable if they fail to provide unbiased, high-quality, evidence-based care.”
“Social determinants of health are the conditions under which people live, work and play… To improve Black maternal health outcomes, social determinants of health must be addressed through policies that raise incomes and build wealth; provide access to clean, safe and affordable housing; improve the quality of education; prioritize reliable public transportation and transport for medical appointments; and increase the availability of healthy, affordable food.”
Good intentions are not enough. As people of faith, we must work to dismantle racism in order to save the lives of black mothers and babies.