The image of a group of white men in suits celebrating the passage of a health care bill that would snatch away affordable access to health care from millions of people—including those living in poverty, people of color, people with disabilities or mental-health issues, and women planning to give birth—is one that will forever be etched into my mind.
The Trump administration’s American Health Care Act would let states opt out of requiring that health insurance plans cover essentials like contraception, maternity care and emergency services. It would also make steep cuts to Medicaid, which helps low-income and disabled populations afford health care and pays for half of all births in the United States. The AHCA is bad news for health care and worse news in terms of the epidemic of pregnancy-related death and disability that’s both needless and ongoing in the U.S. in 2017. The rate of pregnancy-related deaths among American moms is increasing.
The March for Moms, which will take place on Mother’s Day in the nation’s capital, is extremely timely. Thousands of people will march on Washington, D.C., and gather on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Lawn for the first-ever national rally that specifically raises awareness for the health of moms, babies and families. We march because we believe that all moms and their families have the right to affordable health care. Because we believe that all moms deserve to survive pregnancy and childbirth, regardless of class or race. Because we believe it’s wrong and unjust that black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women, and it must stop.
Thousands of people of all colors and creeds standing up for healthy moms, babies and families … now, that’s an image I want to remember.
I march for black moms, for black motherhood and for black families. I march to raise awareness about the severe racial disparities in maternal health outcomes in the United States. I march so that people will know that black women deserve high-quality, respectful care to help them thrive before, during and after pregnancy.
Beyond being three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, black women are also more likely to experience pregnancy-related conditions such as pre-eclampsia, to give birth early, to have a stillborn infant and to experience infant mortality. The health and lives of black moms and babies are in jeopardy, but who or what is to blame?
A growing body of evidence shows that racism, and the stress of living while black in America, plays a significant role in our maternal health outcomes. The racism, discrimination, poverty, interpersonal and state violence, and sexism that black women experience cause a physiological response known as “fight or flight,” which is helpful when you need to deal with an immediate threat, and toxic when it is present day in and day out. Being black in the United States can be a death sentence. As Fleda Mask Jackson summarizes in a new documentary, Death by Delivery, “Racism can kill.”
Black people are also more likely to lack health insurance and to live in states where politicians are not expanding Medicaid and are actively limiting access to reproductive and maternal health care. When the dearth of black maternity-care providers and growing shortages of health care providers are considered, the situation becomes even more dire. The systems currently in place are not working for us. Florida midwife Jennie Joseph aptly states, “This is all coming from a broken system we are willing to condone.”
Joseph, a speaker at the March for Moms, is marching to raise awareness about the thousands of women who nearly died from childbirth, known as near-misses, and who aren’t often recognized or acknowledged. “Compared to the developing world, we don’t lose as many mothers, but we have a lot of morbidities. Every year, there are 60,000 near-misses. We need to draw attention to this. We are living, walking near-misses.”
When I asked Joseph what some solutions might be, she pointed to sharing information: “People need to learn more about the problem. We have to educate and empower ourselves. I give my patients information to advocate for themselves, and the knowledge we empower them with is enough to reduce their rates of cesarean section.”
Informing patients and policymakers alike is essential to making progress on black maternal health. March for Moms organizer Ginger Breedlove is a certified nurse-midwife with nearly 40 years of experience who got fed up with the lack of progress on maternal health in the United States. She and the other march organizers believe that awareness is key.
“When you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you be a part of change? There are groups working in silos that are doing amazing things and have solutions. But we have to get Congress to understand the gravity of what’s happening to moms and babies,” Breedlove said. March organizers hope that the event will bring pregnancy-related death, disability and disparities to the attention of the American public and the politicians who can pass legislation to make a difference.
For example, the bipartisan Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017 would support state governments in establishing or expanding Maternal Mortality Review Committees to identify and review all pregnancy-related deaths, and support national information sharing on causes of maternal death. Theoretically, this bill could provide us with better data on racial disparities in maternal health and point to areas for intervention.
Policymakers have a role and a responsibility to do what’s in our best interest. There is national legislation that can help, and there is policy to make at the state level (pdf) to curb the tide of rising maternal mortality and reduce racial disparities. But it all starts with using our power to raise awareness.
Will you raise your voice with me on Mother’s Day? The world needs to hear that our moms and babies deserve love, care and life.
Elizabeth Dawes Gay is a health and social-justice advocate and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter.