The White House on Tuesday issued its first-ever presidential proclamation marking Black Maternal Health Week as part of the administration’s broader efforts to draw attention to and address the vast racial gaps in pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths and complications in the United States.
“Black women in our country are facing a maternal health crisis,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, who hosted a round table on the issue alongside Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council.
“We know the primary reasons why: systemic racial inequities and implicit bias,” Ms. Harris added.
The U.S. continues to have the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world, driven in large part by the high mortality rates among Black mothers. Approximately 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or its complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women.
Maternal health discrepancies are intertwined with infant mortality: Black infants are more than twice as likely to die than white infants — 10.8 per 1,000 Black babies, compared with 4.6 per 1,000 white babies.
In an often emotional discussion, three Black women shared their birth experiences, highlighting how structural racism led to stillbirths and near-death experiences. Often, they said, doctors simply didn’t take their health concerns and symptoms seriously until it was too late.
“The number one thing I hear is, ‘They’re not listening to me,’” said Heather Wilson, who lost her own child and became a bereavement doula to help other families navigate their loss. “There were times that I felt that way, too.”
“We just need to be listened to and heard, especially when it comes to pain throughout the reproductive system,” said Erica McAfee, founder and chief executive of Sisters in Loss, a podcast that features mothers who have experienced loss.
Maternal and infant mortality is also just one part of maternal health, noted Elizabeth Howell, chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania, who also participated in the round table.
“For every maternal death, over 100 women experience a severe complication related to pregnancy and childbirth — something we call severe maternal morbidity, and it impacts over 50,000 women in the United States every year,” she said.
“Similar to maternal mortality, Black and brown women have elevated rates of maternal morbidity,” Dr. Howell added.
In addition to the presidential proclamation, the administration outlined several actions to specifically address the maternal health issues through the American Rescue Plan, which passed in March, including earmarking $30 million for implicit bias training for health care providers and a provision that allows states to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a full year.
On Monday, Illinois became the first state to do just that, and it is expected to improve health outcomes for Black mothers.