Kyira Dixon Johnson, holding her son, and Johnson’s husband, Charles Johnson IV (MomsRising)

Kyira Dixon Johnson’s story is one of the thousands, if not millions, of black mothers who have died because of the history of an inadequate health care system in this country. She is one of too many black mothers who have died because of this country’s legacy of structural racism.

Kyira Johnson, affectionately called Kira by family and friends, died of hemorrhagic shock after enduring 10 hours of internal bleeding after giving birth to her son Langston at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on April 12, 2016. When the news of Johnson’s death broke, it was devastating for her family, community and all of us who are concerned about the state of black people in this country and the world.

When we sound the call “Black Lives Matter,” we mean every black life everywhere. Our call must center and demand justice for the rising rates of black maternal mortality in the United States. Too many black mothers’ lives are on the line throughout our pregnancies and in childbirth.

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Kyira Johnson’s death was preventable. Not only her death, but the manner in which she died, exposes the horrific state of the U.S. health care system, especially for black women and mothers. Each year, more than 12,000 women die because of preventable causes related to childbirth and pregnancy.

Black women are between three and four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues (pdf) than white women. Studies have shown that these rates persist even when black and white women have the same socioeconomic status. Statistics for black women in the South are worse across the board given the legacy of state governments’ reluctance to guarantee basic health care services and reproductive rights.

Black Mamas Matter: A Toolkit for Advancing the Human Right to Safe and Maternal Health Care

As a black mother, I am acutely aware of the dangers associated with black women’s health care in this country. My experience after giving birth, notably after a cesarean section, came with its own set of complications, from pneumonia to the threat of blood clots, that I was not informed about or prepared for.

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I am alarmed by the abysmal standards that our health care system provides our black women and mothers. It’s clear that while some of us survive childbirth, many of us have died, and many of our black mothers will continue to die at the hands of medical neglect if we do not demand change.

It’s critical that the health care crisis that black communities face in the United States be labeled and understood as an international human rights crisis (pdf). In the same ways we demand justice in light of police brutality, we demand justice for this form of state violence against black bodies, and especially black mothers.

It’s necessary to take concrete steps to improve our health care system and guarantee our right to healthy birthing options.

MomsRising, a grassroots organization of more than 1 million mothers and their families, has organized a candlelight vigil for Kyira Johnson and other black mothers in Los Angeles on Friday at 7 p.m. at the intersection of San Vicente Boulevard and Gracie Allen Drive outside Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Johnson died. The date, June 23, marks a national day of action and also would have been Johnson’s 41st birthday.

The facts leading up to Johnson’s death expose clear negligence on behalf of hospital staff as they insufficiently addressed her bleeding body, pale state and visible unwellness. Johnson’s family have been forever denied her love, care and support, and Johnson, herself, was deprived of a life with dignity and the right to raise her children.

“It is in Kyira’s honor that the #4Kira4Moms vigil will bring to light the thousands of women and families who have suffered in this nation from careless and preventable negligence related to childbirth and pregnancy. Why are women dying from childbirth in the richest country on the face of the globe? We must bring awareness to this issue and demand solutions! Kyira should be here,” exclaimed Johnson’s mother-in-law, Judge Glenda Hatchett.

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Join us Friday and sign the online petition. Stand with us as we call on the U.S. Congress to sign into law H.R. 1318, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017, which mandates stronger maternal health protocols in the fight against maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as the reduction of the racial disparities associated with pregnancy and childbirth in our health care system.

Our concerns are also addressed to the California Department of Public Health and California Legislature. We demand statewide universal maternal-risk screenings in collaboration with providers and advocates, as well as patient-safety bundles at birthing sites in every hospital, and that all hospitals provide maternity services complete with a set of educational activities related to obstetric hemorrhage.

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We also firmly stand with Johnson’s family in their call for an investigation into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Black women and mothers deserve better. We deserve higher standards in the health care we have access to and receive, and we must work together to ensure that black mothers and mothers everywhere don’t risk our lives giving life.


Patrisse Khan-Cullors is co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at MomsRising.