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Why do Black women have the highest maternal mortality rates?

Black women in the U.S. are nearly three times more likely than White women to die giving birth, and some say it's a systemic issue.
Why do Black women have the highest maternal mortality rates?
Posted at 10:49 AM, Jun 05, 2023

Among the statues outside the Alabama state Capitol is one of J. Marion Sims, a 19th century surgeon considered a pioneer of gynecology. While he is recognized for his advancements in childbirth, it's how he learned to do so — experimenting on slaves — that has earned him scorn.

Michelle Browder is an artist in Montgomery, Alabama, and she's created an alternative statue that includes the sculptures of three enslaved Black women Sims experimented on. 

"This man who's known as the father of gynecology but actually mangled and dismembered and tortured these women, men and children, his statue is at our state's Capitol," Browder said. "I'm appalled."

She says her sculptures don't just tell what happened, but how it still reflects in health care today. Browder says it's a system that continues to diminish African American females and downplay their symptoms.

"We're dying from cervical cancer, we're dying from fibroid tumors, because people don't listen to us," she said. "We're not believed when we speak."

SEE MORE: Doulas, midwives are helping Black women in their birthing experiences

A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that Black women have the highest maternal mortality rates in the country and it's nearly three times the rate for White women. Additionally, many Black women say they feel disrespected by their doctors and that their symptoms are often ignored.

Angelica Lyons was pregnant when she began to suffer from severe stomach pains. But when she pleaded for help, Lyons says she was largely ignored by medical staff and repeatedly sent home. Finally, when her baby's heart rate dropped dangerously low months before she was due, Lyons was rushed to the emergency room for a cesarean section birth. She nearly died from an undiagnosed case of sepsis.

"It's scary knowing that I could have died," Lyons said. "That my mom, my sister, my ex-husband would have to be taking care of my son and I wouldn't be here."

SEE MORE: CDC reports fewer babies were born in 2022, among other new trends

Dr. Meredith McMullen is a San Diego OB-GYN, and she says Black American women have a higher mortality rate for various reasons.

"A lot of that is because of preexisting conditions," she said. "Some of that is because an implicit bias exists within our medical system."

That bias can range from a lack of access to medical facilities to overall subpar treatment. One recent study by the National Institutes of Health documented how medical providers were less likely to recognize pain in the faces of Black patients than in non-Black patients.

Dr. McMullen says Black women are more susceptible to some medical conditions — like hypertension — that caregivers need to pay close attention to. She suggests one key to improving Black maternal health would be more diversity among labor and delivery teams.

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