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The Startling Truth About Black Maternal Mortality

(Editor's note: Susana Morris is a blogger, activist, and professor. She is also co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC). This article re-affirms why it is important for women of color to have a Sister Friend during pregnancy)

Maternal mortality is on the rise in the United States, under stark racial lines. In fact, Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. This is a reproductive justice and human rights crisis.

The New York Times reports that, “The leading causes of maternal death in the US are blood clots, severe bleeding and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, a condition known as preeclampsia.”

While it is true that the overwhelming number of maternal deaths—99% of them—occur in developing countries and that generally speaking the United States is a pretty good place for a woman to have a baby, it is also true that pregnancy and child birth outcomes vary wildly by class and socioeconomic situation. Indeed, U.S. women are more likely to die during childbirth than women in any other developed country.

However, race also factors in in a major way in the United States. In fact, there are parts of the U.S. that have maternal mortality rates that are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, the U.S., arguably the most powerful country in the world has health disparities on par with the so-called developing world.

Race and Maternal Mortality

A report by Amnesty International lays out the startling statistics of maternal care and mortality broken down by race and ethnicity: “Despite representing only 32 percent of women, women of color make up 51 percent of women without insurance.

Women of color are also less likely to have access to adequate maternal health care services. Native American and Alaska Native women are 3.6 times, African-American women 2.6 times and Latina women 2.5 times as likely as white women to receive late or no prenatal care. Women of color are more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

In high-risk pregnancies, African-American women are 5.6 times more likely to die than white women. Women of color are more likely to experience discriminatory and inappropriate treatment and poorer quality of care.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, “considerable racial disparities in pregnancy-related mortality exist,” noting the following ration: while there were 12.5 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women and 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births for women of other races, there was a whopping 42.8 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women.

Access to health care is a big part of maternal mortality. Higher mortality rates are often found in places where people do not have steady access to health care. Take for example, the rural South: it has the highest rate of maternal mortality largely because because many remote communities do not have access to hospitals.

These factors can be even more stark for Black women. The Office of Women’s Health also cites studies that call out the issue of access. One study suggests that limited access to health care may be one major reason for African American women’s higher rates of maternal mortality. The study noted that pregnant Black women were more than twice as likely as white women to get late or no prenatal care at all.

The Black women said they wanted earlier prenatal care, but they could not get it because of a lack of money or insurance or not being able to get an appointment. Limited funds and other sorts of resources can have a profound effect on Black women’s lives.

The Bottom Line

Making sure that poor women, particularly those of color, have access to quality prenatal and postnatal care is a reproductive justice issue and a core human right.

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