When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was in the midst of working on a paper about racial disparities in maternal health. Throughout my own pregnancy, my research allowed me to see the experience through a new lens that included reflecting on my own privilege as a white woman.
In their report, “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Pregnancy-Related Deaths — United States, 2007–2016,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that Black mothers in the United States are three to four times as likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. One of the many reasons for this is the long-term impact of chronic stress, as reported by The New York Times Magazine in the article “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis”.
In my own preparation for childbirth, I became fascinated with the strength of the mind-body connection. Based on “The Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle,” the more that negative stimuli produce fear and tension, the more pain and complications women experience.
As a white woman, I experienced some stresses: moving to a different state close to my due date, listening to other people’s horror stories about birth, and general anxiety about what was to come. But none of these stresses were inflicted on me solely because of the color of my skin, which is a level of privilege many women do not have.
As illustrated in an NPR story titled, “Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth,” Black women consistently report being treated with bias and having their pain minimized in the healthcare system. This leads to heightened stress at the very time when they ought to be relaxing and receiving care to improve their health. A lifetime of experiencing racism takes a physical toll on a Black woman’s body, leading to health issues like hypertension and pre-eclampsia. As her body becomes accustomed to feeling threatened, the resulting stress is detrimental to healthy birth outcomes.
Because of this maternal health crisis, the lives of both mothers and their babies are at risk. Catholic Social Teaching emphasizes that societies must put the needs of their most vulnerable members first, and in order to address the crisis, we must give a “preferential option” for Black mothers.
Here are three ideas for how we can get started in creating a more equitable system that affirms the lives of Black women and their babies:
1. Call your representatives and advocate for the passage of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021.
There is currently a bill in Congress that hopes to address aspects of the maternal health disparity. A few elements of the legislation are investing in social determinants of health (housing, transportation, nutrition), growing and diversifying the perinatal workforce, and providing funding to community-based organizations that are working to improve maternal health. Congress.gov allows you to see what action has been taken on the bill and look up your representatives so you can contact them and ask them to support it.
2. Donate to organizations that support Black mothers.
One of the organizations that has signed on in support of the above bill is Abide Women’s Health Services, an organization run by Black women and based out of Dallas, TX. Their goals include reducing infant and maternal mortality rates and increasing the number of Black midwives and birth workers of color - and their first listed value is being life-affirming. They are a great example of how anti-racism and pro-life advocacy are interconnected.
3. Use pro-life platforms to educate about racial disparities in maternal health.
Many Catholic parishes and schools have pro-life groups that support pregnant mothers and advocate for life-affirming policies. Yet, in my years of attending Catholic school and being involved in different parishes, I have never heard a discussion of racial disparities in maternal health in these groups. Those who are already involved in pro-life work have a platform and an opportunity to address a serious issue that causes the deaths of both babies and mothers. This could be as simple as hosting an event to educate others about disparities in maternal health and encourage parishioners to support Black mothers.