April 11 - 17 is Black Maternal Health Week, a campaign founded by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance to create awareness and inspire activism around issues related to maternal health and reproductive justice for Black mothers. These issues are more important than ever as Black women continue to die at disproportionate rates during childbirth. Now Tufts University in Boston, MA, has launched a pioneering new initiative dedicated to helping find solutions that lead to positive outcomes for Black mothers.
“The country is in a crisis around maternal health,” says Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, the Julia A. Okoro Professor of Black Maternal Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “The majority of Black maternal deaths are completely preventable.” Amutah-Onukagha, an associate professor and assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, will lead the new Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice (CBMHRJ) at Tufts University.
“The opportunity to create and launch a national Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice at this critical time will not only honor the work around maternal health equity but also position Tufts as a leader in this field,” she says. “The vision of the center is to protect the Black birthing experience by advocating for quality, equitable, and respectful care in childbirth.”
The World Health Organization defines maternal death as, “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.” And according to statistics from the CDC, the maternal mortality rate for Black women in 2020 was far greater than the overall figure. In 2020 the maternal mortality rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. But the rate for Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births.
With support from the National Institutes of Health, the new center at Tufts will focus on research into the racial disparities that exist in maternal health. Researchers plan to engage the community to better understand Black mothers’ experience and what resources they are lacking. The hope is that their findings will help influence both local and national policy. The center will also work on training health professionals, including clinicians, social workers, public health workers and nurses, through the Maternal Outcomes for Translational Health Equity Research (MOTHER) Lab. Amutah-Onukagha founded the program, which trains students to become maternal health scholar-activists.
“The center seeks to create a world where Black women can safely and comfortably receive equitable access to healthcare services without having to navigate discrimination in medical settings,” says Helen Boucher, dean ad interim of the School of Medicine and Tufts Medicine chief academic officer. “Not only is it a critical societal need, but I am also proud that this mission is in complete alignment with the central themes of the School of Medicine’s Strategic Plan, which include a commitment to anti-racism, inclusion, health justice, and advancing the health of populations.”
The Biden administration also has the issue of Black maternal health on its radar. This is a portion of the President’s Proclamation on Black Maternal Health Week, 2022, issued April 8:
The Biden-Harris Administration remains fully committed to ameliorating these unacceptable disparities and building a health care system that is equitable and safe for Black families. The inequities that Black mothers face are not isolated incidents but, rather, the byproduct of systemic racism in our society that has festered for far too long. To root it out, and improve health outcomes, we must address a broad range of areas where unequal access persists along racial lines — including access to health care, adequate nutrition and housing, toxin-free environments, high-paying job sectors that provide paid leave, and workplaces free from harassment and discrimination.
Amutah-Onukagha hopes the impact of the work at Tufts will extend to Black mothers far beyond Boston. “The work that will come out of this center will shape federal health legislation and hopefully impact policy in a way that will save lives,” she says. “That’s the biggest return on investment.”