Racial Disparities In Maternal Care Have Created A Health Crisis - Here's How You Can Help

Women of color are dying across the U.S. for the simple crime of wanting to be a mother. For most people pursuing a family, pregnancy news is a joyful occasion, but for black and Indigenous women, this news is increasingly tinged with fear. Black women are 2.6 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth complications than white women (with American Indian and Alaska Native women twice as likely to die). To make matters worse, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is the highest of any developed nation in the entire world.

Data shows this is a full-blown maternal crisis, and yet it can often feel as though nothing is being done to stop women from dying. The recent death of Tori Bowie further highlighted the dangerously insufficient care given to Black mothers in the U.S. Her death, along with stories from Serena Williams and Beyonce, who both experienced dangerous pregnancy complications, indicates just how prevalent this issue is for women of color at all socioeconomic levels. Despite the fact that 84% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, little legislation has been brought forward at the state level. The maternal mortality issue should be receiving far more attention than it has been so let's dive into the racial disparities in our current maternal health system and discuss what you can do to help fight this crisis.

Racial disparities

D'Andra Willis, of the Black-centered reproductive justice group the Afiya Center, told NBC News, "Maternal mortality for Black women has nothing to do with health or economic status. You could be the richest or the poorest, Black women are still three to five times more likely to die in childbirth than any poor white woman." According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, even when education and income were factored in, racial disparities in health outcomes persisted for Black women. In fact, the rate of pregnancy-related deaths for college-educated Black women is more than five times higher than it is for college-educated white women, shining a light on the racism at the heart of this issue.

Systemic racism has not only affected how doctors see, treat, and listen to women of color but has also created a socioeconomic system that leads to a lack of care for many. Women of reproductive age in the U.S. are significantly more likely to struggle to pay their medical bills than women in other developed countries, with Hispanic women being the most likely to be uninsured. This leads to skipped appointments, delayed care, and improperly managing chronic conditions due to costs. Medical expenses are made more detrimental by the fact that women of color are paid less than men and white women. This financial burden, combined with the implicit racial bias found among medical professionals, leads to the lack of equitable care for women of color and directly contributes to preventable deaths.

What is being done

Several states have passed legislation addressing various health disparities. However, these pieces of legislation vary wildly depending on the state and very few of them specifically address racial disparities. From simply requesting studies on racial information to actually implementing required implicit bias training for all nursing schools, there has been an extremely uneven approach to the issue of racial disparities in maternal care. The California Momnibus Act stands out as one of the only state-level bills passed with the express goal of closing existing racial gaps in maternal and infant mortality rates. From expanding post-partum services to adding doula services to covered state care, the Act even provides cash assistance for low-income pregnant women and their families.

At the federal level, the Black Maternal Health Momnibus legislative package was reintroduced to Congress in May 2023. This package features 13 different bills that address different elements of the black maternity crisis. Senator Cory Booker, one of the representatives responsible for sponsoring the package, described the legislation as "a critical step towards saving lives, ending disparities in health care and outcomes, and ensuring our health care system treats all moms with the care and dignity they deserve regardless of their race or circumstance." The bills mandate extending nutrition programs like WIC, creating grants for mental health care, and carving out dedicated funding for organizations working on the front lines of maternal care. You can track the progress of this package through The Century Foundation.

What can you do to help

A good way to advocate on behalf of mothers of color is by calling or writing your state and federal representatives to voice your support for legislation geared towards stopping racial disparities in maternal healthcare. You can also call or write your representative's office to voice support for specific legislation such as the Black Maternal Health Momnibus package. Without a clear and constant push from constituents, it is too easy for government representatives to let issues go unchanged. So, in addition to voting for candidates that prioritize women's health and acknowledge racial disparities, it is important for all of us to keep the momentum going with our elected officials. It is ultimately up to all of us to push for, track, and advocate on behalf of legislation that might help save women's lives.

Beyond representatives and legislation, there are many non-profit organizations and foundations working to combat the maternal mortality crisis. These organizations can always use donations, volunteers, event attendees, or even a social media share to help get their messaging and resources out to people who might need them. If you're not sure where to start, the U.S. House of Representatives Black Maternal Health Caucus has an informative list of nine organizations working to save Black mothers. Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit organization, also has a detailed Black Maternal Health Resource List that includes data, suggested readings, and even policy recommendations to help inform your own advocacy.