If Christians want to “choose life,” let’s talk about Black maternal mortality

If Christians want to "choose life," let's talk about Black maternal mortality

During some of the most intense periods of fighting in the Syrian Civil War, the maternal mortality rate in Washington, DC was worse than it was in Syria.

Reading that statistic shook me to my core. The first time I met him, I was in graduate school studying to be a social worker. A cold feeling built up in my heart and descended to my stomach as I absorbed a report that found that Syria’s maternal mortality rate increased from 26 to 31 deaths per 100,000 live births from 2007 to 2015, an increase that the researchers attributed to the ongoing civil war in the nations and the subsequent deterioration of their health care systems. Meanwhile, during the same period, maternal mortality in the US capital reached 33 deaths for every 100,000 live births. A recent study found that the 2021 maternal death rate in the United States was higher than any other high-wealth nation, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

For all the power and might the United States claims to have, this country chooses not to save the lives of some of our most precious members: mothers and children. I was amazed that lawmakers sat idly by and allowed pregnant people, including their own mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives, to face the risks of pregnancy without the necessary support. As a person of faith, I thought of the clear instructions from scripture not to withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is within your power to do (Proverbs 3:27).

I eventually became a social worker, so let me nerd out for a moment: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines maternal mortality as a death that occurs during the nearly two-year period that includes pregnancy, childbirth, and birth. ‘next year . Common causes of death include severe bleeding, infection, high blood pressure during pregnancy, or complications during childbirth. (Maternal mortality is different from maternal mortality morbiditywhich refers to any short- or long-term health problems resulting from pregnancy and childbirth.)

In other words, our country is withdrawing access to reproductive health in the name of life choice by refusing to support the development of life in utero and after birth. We also haven’t ensured that people giving birth or caring for children have paid for family and medical leave, workplace protections, or even access to health care facilities. In states like Mississippi and Alabama, budget pressures are forcing many rural hospitals to close, disrupting the single point of care before, during, and after labor.

The maternal mortality crisis is even more alarming when one looks at the disparities between different racial and ethnic groups. Overall, black women and American Indian/Alaska Native women are 2 to 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. And that disparity cannot be attributed to racial disparities related to poverty or family life; a black mother with a college education still has a 60 percent higher risk of maternal death than a white or Hispanic woman with less than a high school education.

This is not a class issue; it’s about racism, especially the unequal treatment of blacks in the medical system. Of course, the roots of medical racism, including the horrific experiments conducted by the founder of modern gynecology on enslaved black women, are centuries old and are still evident today: Recent studies have shown that compared to white patients, black patients are less likely to receive appropriate pain medication or referrals to specialist care. Ill-treatment during maternity care, including verbal abuse; loss of autonomy; and being ignored, rejected, or not getting a response to requests for help is more common among women of color. Serena Williams also had to fight against that racism when she gave birth and almost died from a pulmonary embolism.

Racial disparities in maternal mortality are also influenced by the biological consequences of racism. Arline Geronimus, a public health professor at the University of Michigan, coined the phrase impairment to describe how the repeated stress of social and economic adversity and political marginalization have caused black people to deteriorate prematurely in health. In other words, the cumulative experience of racism has physical consequences. This problem is so real and pervasive that policymakers in more than 50 American municipalities and three states have formally highlighted racism as a public health crisis since 2019.

Studies have shown that the stresses associated with racism are not just a problem for the mother, these stresses are transmitted intergenerationally in utero and follow children throughout their life cycle. For example, a briefing from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that even when controlling for some underlying social and economic factors, such as education and income, maternal and child health disparities, including increased risk of low birth weight, and preterm births, persist at higher rates among Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women. A 2020 report from the Center for American Progress puts it this way: The long-term psychological toll of racism puts African-American women at increased risk for a variety of medical conditions that threaten their lives and those of their children, including preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure), eclampsia (a complication of preeclampsia characterized by seizures), embolisms (blood vessel blockages), and mental health conditions.

Black women and children are dying from historical and systemic racism that affects us on a neurobiological and physiological level; what other reasons must people of faith listen to before calling the disparate rates of maternal mortality a sin?

I can’t help but think of my mother, who had her own life threatening pregnancy complications after having me. I think about what it would have been like to live without her, to have grown up without her, and it deeply troubles my heart and soul that there are others who have not been so fortunate. Much of my faith hinges on an understanding that God does not want us to suffer, but rather calls us to run towards the suffering of others. Scripture is very clear when it tells us: If one member suffers, they all suffer together; if one member is honored, they all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26).

While it may be easy to look away from this crisis because the acute burden is being experienced by Black and Brown women, I desperately urge you to think again; when one part of the system suffers, the rest of the system suffers with it. The Black maternal health crisis is exposing the cracks in our maternal and newborn care system, but addressing these fundamental issues will create a basic system of care that benefits all women and children in the United States. One of the biggest opportunities for change is the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a pending bipartisan package of laws that would obviously correct the current flaws in our maternal, newborn, and child health care systems. The legislation, which would support states and localities in addressing this crisis, would take a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to creating maternal equity for Black mothers and their children. This bill would also improve and increase the workforce and address rural maternal health issues, which would improve our economy and the country as a whole. I urge everyone, especially people of faith, to let your elected representatives know that you support this bill and remind them of their sacred duty to protect mothers and children.

There’s no reason black and brown women should experience such high rates of maternal mortality; the only reason this disparity exists is because of racism. And because racism is a social behavior that we can change, I believe people of faith have a God-given duty to address the impact of this behavior on vulnerable women and children. We must not stand by and allow this crisis to continue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *