In America, there is a significant gap between the probability a black mother will die from a pregnancy or childbirth related cause and the probability that a white mother will. The ugly reality is that black mothers are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes than white women. And, in some parts of the country, the statistics are grimmer: for example, in New York City, between the years 2006 and 2010, black mothers died 12 times as often as white mothers during pregnancy, labor, or from complications of labor.
Encountering these grim statistics, it’s only natural to wonder, why? Why, in the US, are there stark differences between black and white maternal mortality rates? In a captivating article from 2017, a reporter from NPR and another from ProPublica, joined forces to offer some plausible explanations. One such explanation pinned the blame on the unconscious bias of healthcare providers. Another pinned the blame on the day-to-day racism and sexism that black women experience.
Unconscious Bias of Healthcare Providers
About the unconscious bias of healthcare providers, the reporters note:
In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB-GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.
Over and over, black women told of medical providers who equated being African American with being poor, uneducated, noncompliant and unworthy.
The authors contend that the discrimination that black women experience in their day-to-day life, due to their race and gender, may ultimately be the most significant factor that leads to the poor maternal outcomes they experience. Indeed, an emerging field of research argues that an effect of the stress of being a black woman in America caused poor health outcomes for black mothers. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explains that the stress that comes with being a black woman in America increases susceptibility to infection, causes the early onset of chronic diseases (particularly hypertension and diabetes), and generally causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities.
What Can Be Done to Improve Health Outcomes for Black Mothers
First, there are actions that doctors and other healthcare providers can take: Professor Geronimus thinks doctors and other healthcare workers should consider the added layer of vulnerability for black women and that black women should be attended to differently, with greater appreciation of the potential health challenges ahead.
Second, there are actions that we, as individuals, can take. As individuals, we can and should hold hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare professionals accountable for the errors they make. All too often individuals who are injured by healthcare professionals or the families of those individuals never seek the help of a medical malpractice attorney. This is a shame, because holding hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare workers accountable isn’t about putting those individuals or entities out of business; it’s about putting justice in business.
Finally, we can and should push lawmakers–especially those in blue states–to fix medical malpractice laws; for example, in Maryland, we can push lawmakers to lengthen the applicable statute of limitations and to eliminate the cap on damages for pain and suffering. When black women receive inferior healthcare due to racism, limiting their ability to sue and recover substantial damages for the harm inferior care causes is a civil rights issue.