Five Fast Facts: Black Maternal Health Week Edition

default author image04.17.2024

April 11th through April 17th marks the recognition of Black Maternal Health Week in the United States each year. America has one of the worst maternal mortality rates, approximately 10 times higher than that of other high-income countries. While these countries have an average of 2-3 deaths for every 100,000 live births, the U.S. clocks in with a rate of about 33 deaths to 100,000 live births. 

Black American women account for the highest rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. as they are confronted with structural inequalities, systemic racism, and implicit bias. The tragic passing of Olympic athlete Tori Bowie in 2023 and Serena Williams’ pregnancy complications in 2017 remind us that even well-resourced Black women aren’t immune to these challenges.

1. Black pregnant women are almost 3 times more likely to die than white pregnant women

For every 100,000 live births, about 70 Black women died compared to approximately 27 white women in 2021. These rates remain about the same when accounting for educational status and age, pointing toward race as a major determining factor in birthing outcomes.

In New York City, Black people account for 23% of the population yet accounted for 45% of all pregnancy-associated deaths in 2020. Pregnancy-associated deaths include all fatalities that can be tied to the pregnancy, both during and within the year following the birth.

Black women also face higher rates of maternal mortality throughout the entire state of New York. Their mortality rate is five times that of white women, with 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. To address the maternal health crisis, NY Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a six-point plan earlier this year.

3. Cardiac and coronary conditions are the leading underlying causes of Black maternal deaths

These conditions include coronary artery disease, pulmonary hypertension, and other cardiovascular diseases. The other two leading causes of death are postpartum cardiomyopathy and blood clots (thrombotic embolism). This indicates that the tracking of heart health and blood pressure is critical in prenatal care.

While pain can be common throughout pregnancy, it can serve as an indicator of significant issues like rising blood pressure, a sign of preeclampsia which is the leading cause of Black maternal deaths in a separate study. Too often, Black women’s pain is dismissed or overlooked. A 2016 study revealed that half of a sample of white medical students held false beliefs about biological differences between Black and white people. This included beliefs that Black people have thicker skin and subsequently feel less pain. Doctors must be trained to catch the warning signs of these issues as well as overcome their biases.

4. 87% of low-income Black women are exposed to at least one traumatic event during pregnancy

Though mental health conditions are not among the top three underlying causes of Black maternal mortality, 40% of Black women experience perinatal mood disorder symptoms. This means they may be experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or substance abuse. The prevalence of mental health conditions coupled with the rate of exposure to traumatic incidents, which include being a victim or witness to a crime, further emphasizes the need for attending to Black women’s mental health. Prenatal stress not only harms birthing parents, it also has negative consequences for the child’s development. 

5. Doulas can help combat Black maternal mortality rates by tackling structural inequalities

Over 80% of all pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. With the implementation of community support systems, we can expect many of these deaths to drop. Doulas and other forms of integrated community care can help address the structural racism and inequalities contributing to preventable deaths. These inequalities include understaffed and under-resourced facilities, redlining and segregation leading to differences in educational opportunities, and racial bias towards patients. 

Doulas are an instrumental tool in combating maternal mortality. Their position allows them to serve as an additional advocate in medical settings and help catch warning signs of significant medical issues during pregnancy. The presence of doulas has been shown to decrease the odds of needing a C-section and developing postpartum depression or anxiety.

Tackling the maternal health crisis is an all-hands-on-deck situation requiring support from doulas, midwives, birthing centers, legislators, and other medical professionals. Above all, it means tackling implicit bias and holding doctors accountable to a standard of healthcare that is free of racism. Black women should be able to trust that their doctors will provide them with the same quality of care as their white patients.