Many people don’t realize African American women have a much greater risk of severe health complications and even death for themselves and their baby in the earliest stages of motherhood than white women. The same holds true for all females who are BIPOC, which stands for black, indigenous, and people of color. Even these women themselves are too often unaware of the threats they face during pregnancy, delivery, and the year following giving birth.
Danielle Bryant said her near-death experience came as a complete surprise.
“I had never associated a life-threatening situation with pregnancy and delivery,” she told CBN News.
Danielle was rushed to the hospital when she was just six and a half months into her pregnancy, about to give birth.
“Basically I had internal bleeding that was not controllable,” she said, “I had 23 transfusions, and my son, unfortunately, he suffered some brain damage.”
Danielle’s mother, Theresa Pittman, stayed by her daughter’s side.
“I immediately started calling people to pray, to pray with me, and to pray for her, because I realized something serious was going on,” she said, “And found out later that she was at death’s door.”
Three Times More Likely to Die
Dr. Wanda Barfield, M.D., the Centers for Disease Control’s director of Reproductive Health told CBN News that for many reasons, black women face unusual hardships when it comes to having a baby, regardless of their income or education.
“We know that black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, and black women are also significantly more likely to have a severe health complication at the time of delivery,” she said, “It’s just really important for us to understand that these pregnancy-related deaths, two out of three are preventable.”
Too often black women have fibroids, which are benign uterine tumors that can cause severe bleeding, and preeclampsia, which involves high blood pressure that can be fatal. Dr. Barfield said black women also can suffer from a premature deterioration of their overall health due to chronic, race-based stress.
“We know that these historical disadvantages that are experienced for black and Native American women sort of weigh on them over time,” she explained, “To something that’s called the ‘weathering’ hypothesis.”
Studies show black infants are more likely than white babies to be stillborn, premature, have low birth weight, and see greater numbers of death before their first birthday. Additionally, black infants born before 32 weeks are more likely than white babies born before 32 weeks to experience more brain issues.
Not all hospitals offer the same level of service. Seventy-five percent of black women give birth at hospitals that serve predominantly black populations. As it turns out, these hospitals generally provide lower-quality maternal care.
Racism Among Health Care Workers
Patient studies and personal testimonies, such as Heather Wilson’s, point to racism among some health care workers.
“I have experienced bias, racial bias,” she told CBN News, “I had a stillborn child. Her name was Kennedy. And when I was pregnant with my second daughter, who did survive, Riley, I experienced so much bias that I had to switch doctors in the middle of my pregnancy at six months.”
Wilson’s loss prompted her to start a non-profit organization called Kennedy’s Angel Gowns which started with her making burial gowns for babies lost during pregnancy out of wedding dresses. It has since grown to include providing cooling units for mothers who lose a child in the hospital, prayer, bereavement advocates, and more.
Wilson started reaching out to other BIPOC women online and elsewhere to prejudice Wilson felt from health care workers while she was pregnant caused her to reach out on social media and elsewhere to see if other women shared similar experiences.
“I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t give me the time of day. Why they wouldn’t listen to me? Why they brushed over me? Why they rushed through the appointments?,” she said, “I had pre-eclampsia with Kennedy, so she passed away at 36 weeks. I also had preeclampsia with Riley. I was six months into my pregnancy and I was telling the nurse practitioner because, at six months, I still hadn’t seen a doctor. I was considered high risk but I wasn’t being treated like high risk.”
Wilson was overwhelmed with responses from women who told similar stories that all pointed toward racism.
“It’s definitely racial bias, 100 percent,” she said, “You hate to think that, but when you reach out, and women are having the same exact experiences, you can’t help but think, ‘this is not a coincidence.'”
A 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science revealed half of the medical students and resident physicians held false beliefs such as black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive, skin is thicker, and blood coagulates more than white people’s.
Steps Towards Change
In 2021, Wilson joined a black maternal health roundtable discussion led by Vice President Kamala Harris, in which Wilson said the number one pregnancy-related source of anger and sadness among black women is not being heard by health care professionals, adding, “oftentimes it’s too late.”
The Biden administration proposed increased spending to improve black maternal health, such as providing Medicaid coverage for up to a year after a woman gives birth, and paying for personal advocacy workers called doulas. However, since that proposal was part of the defeated Build Back Better bill, its future remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, medical schools now incorporate anti-bias training into their curriculum and many health care agencies require their workers to take anti-bias training courses. The Health and Human Services Department offers one such course online, and free of charge.
Additionally, the CDC instituted a campaign called Hear Her which offers pregnancy-related information for BIPOC women, such as how to recognize warning signs and guidelines for choosing the right hospital and doctor, something Bryant has experienced firsthand.
“You have the right to interview your doctors,” she said, “Ask them the questions that you need to know. I would even ask, especially as a black woman, ‘What kinds of experiences do you have with people like me?’ I know I tried to find a black female doctor. She was not taking new patients.”
The CDC cites the importance of women seeking doctors they trust and with whom they can identify. Dr. Barfield says it goes beyond doctors, adding medical offices and hospitals should hire staff that can relate to all patients.
“Whether that’s the person who meets you at the front desk, those that are assisting you with a referral, there is a huge opportunity for us to create diversity in the touch-points as they interact with pregnant and postpartum women,” she said.
So while various issues facing BIPOC women can lead to devastating consequences during pregnancy, birth, and post-partum, increasing attention is being given to these problems to affect change for the better.