How to address – and improve – Black maternal health
Black women in the U.S. experience morbidity and mortality three to four times more often during childbirth than their white counterparts. While Hispanic mothers and Native American mothers also die at exceptionally high rates (2 times and 1.8 times, respectively), statistics show that maternal mortality in the Black community is a prominent and pressing issue. This issue is the cause of two main factors: implicit bias towards Black people in the medical field before and during pregnancy and a lack resources in Black communities.
According to University of Minnesota professor Rachel Hardeman, a leading scholar in the Black maternal health community, “Many birthing people of color, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous, report high levels of mistrust and experiencing disrespect and a lack of autonomy when receiving prenatal care.” She believes that medical schools should “equip every clinician–in every role– to address racism [and] test this knowledge as an essential professional competency.”
These disparities exist outside of low-income communities. Black mothers in the least vulnerable communities continue to remain at higher risk of maternal mortality, preterm birth, and low birthweight than white mothers in the most vulnerable communities. Black maternal health issues affect all Black women, no matter their status. Individual factors like higher socioeconomic status and education don’t always eliminate or lessen the impact of disparities. Thankfully, our elected officials are doing their part to bring awareness to this issue as well as working to solve it and lessen the gap between Black mothers and their contemporaries.
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Black Maternal Health “Momnibus” Act in 2021. The “Momnibus” served to address the disparities faced by Black child-bearing women and improve access to maternal and post-partum care by addressing the systemic racism that permeates the medical field and our society. Twelve separate bills were introduced by several different House members and senators. Underwood, along with Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) are the co-chairs of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, founded in 2019, which is helping drive attention to this issue.
Instead of one large bill to address all Black maternal health disparities, advocates in Congress have taken an approach of intersectionality to understand the many issues that Black mothers face. The Momnibus is a package of a dozen interrelated bills. This includes social determinants, vaccinations, federal maternal health programs, maternal mental healthcare, climate change and COVID-19 risks, advancing research on maternal health, strengthening the perinatal workforce (including bias training), expanding insurance coverage, and protection for veteran and incarcerated mothers. By taking an intersectional approach, lawmakers are working to address all of the issues faced by Black mothers that often build off each other to create barriers with complex, multifaced issues, such as the systemic racism seen throughout the health care system.
The idea of intersectionality is not only present in the creation of 12 separate bills to make up Momnibus, but also continues throughout each of the bills in an effort to fully address Black maternal health inequities. Lawmakers have truly thought out all the ways in which injustice for Black mothers is perpetrated through systemic injustice, working towards lasting change for Black women and children. At the end of 2021, President Biden signed the Protecting Moms Who Served Act into law, the first component of Momnibus to become law; it passed with bipartisan support. While this win brings our country one step closer to equity, there are still many more steps that need to be taken.