Why are Black women in the US more likely to die during pregnancy?

Why are Black women in the US more likely to die during pregnancy?

Among wealthy nations, the US has the highest maternal mortality rate. This means over 10 times the number of women in the US die due to pregnancy-related complications than countries like Australia, Israel, Japan, Spain, and many many more. And this number has continued to go up in recent years. In 2021, 1,205 people in the US died of maternal causes. That was a 40% increase from maternal related deaths in 2020. 

According to the CDC, “Black women in the U.S. are nearly three times more likely to die during pregnancy or delivery than any other race.” Black women face a combination of social, economic, and healthcare challenges that contribute to inadequate maternal care. One reason for this is a lack of accessibility to quality prenatal care. Southern states suffer the highest maternal mortality rates, and the Southeastern US is home to the largest Black population. 

Another reason? Clinicians are more likely to underestimate and undertreat women’s pain, especially if the patient is a woman of color. Women experience longer delays in testing, less intense screening and treatment, longer delays in treatment, and higher mortality rates for various kinds of disease, as well as pregnancy. 

In medicine, the default body is the white male body. A 2013 study of 59 medical textbooks found that the anatomy vulva was either inadequately, incompletely, or incorrectly described in all the studied texts. And, as of 2019, medical textbooks still inaccurately represent the nerves and vasculature of the clitoris. No wonder our maternal care falls far behind that of other nations. 

If you want to read more, Winx Health (formerly known as Stix) did a series in the fall of 2023 about medical misogyny, also known as medical gaslighting. This phenomenon explains exactly why women are not taken seriously when it comes to their health. Medical misogyny is compounded for women of color. “A yearlong Associated Press project found that the health challenges Black Americans endure often begin before their first breath.” Black babies are more likely to be born prematurely, and thus to die due to a lack of adequate maternal healthcare.

The AP tells the story of Angelica Lyons, a Black public health educator who got pregnant in 2019. Angelica had taught her own students about the racial disparities in the Alabama healthcare system, but once she got pregnant she experienced a life-threatening example of this systemic injustice first hand. When Angelica began to suffer crippling stomach pain, she went to her doctor and was sent home, being told it was due to normal contractions. After months, her baby’s heart rate plummeted and she was finally taken seriously. Angelica nearly died of an undiagnosed case of sepsis. 

Angelica’s experience is not a one-off. This is what happens in a system that does not believe women when it comes to their own bodies, especially Black women. We need to build a system that not only teaches doctors medically accurate information about female anatomy, but one that listens to its marginalized groups. The US has the resources to significantly lower its maternal mortality rate. This should be at the top of the “pro-life” agenda, instead of protecting the “lives” of frozen embryos. 

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