In LaKeisha’s hometown of Atlanta, black women die in childbirth at a rate more than three times the national average.
LaKeisha was lucky. She recovered from a painful infection after a c-section for which she received inadequate follow-up care: no instructions for recovery, no check-in calls from the doctor’s office. But the experience traumatized her both physically and emotionally, especially when her husband was laid off (on Father’s Day) and she was forced to return to work earlier than planned.
Through a joint project between our organizations—SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the Center for Reproductive Rights—we spoke this past spring to LaKeisha and 24 other black women about their reproductive and sexual histories and heard bone-chilling stories of their experiences throughout the South.
Kendra is from Mississippi, where a disproportionately high percentage of people of color live in poverty. In that state, there are counties in where women die from pregnancy-related complications at a rate 20 times the national average—a higher maternal mortality rate than in sub-Saharan Africa.
No surprise then that Kendra, who became pregnant in the 12th grade after receiving virtually no sex education, says of her community, “We really don't have a lot of good experiences when it comes to childbirth.”
Many folks are unaware that maternal mortality is a simmering crisis in the United States. While the rest of the world has seen an overall dramatic reduction in maternal death rates the last two decades, the U.S. has seen a 136% rise, brought on by gender and racial discrimination in the health care system, barriers to health care access, and the lack of social supports for low-income parents of color.
Nationwide, black women are four times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women. The high cost of health care, poor access to providers for those who depend on publicly financed care, a lack of prenatal care, and inadequate maternal and postnatal care all increase the risk of negative health outcomes. Precarious financial situations and a lack of paid parental leave mean that new mothers are often forced to return to work before they—or their bodies—are ready.
Alarmed and frustrated at the lack of national discussion about the issue of black women’s maternal health—and the status of black women’s health more generally—we decided to take the issue to the international stage where we could hold our government accountable for failing to take action to address discrimination in health care.
That’s how this summer—as Ferguson reeled at home in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder—we ended up in Geneva, Switzerland, testifying before the United Nations human rights committee that monitors U.S. progress in addressing racial discrimination.
Chateaus perched on pristine lakeshores. Alpine silhouettes and graceful promenades. Stately governmental palaces. It doesn’t sound like the most likely place to discuss race in America.
Yet, somehow it was the right place.
Sometimes our government—our whole system—can feel unmovable. As though no matter how passionately you raise your voice, make signs, put up your hands, speak truth to power, you can never really change things.
It was different in Geneva. There, surrounded by delegates and advocates from every corner of the world—including our own corner—the world was listening. Listening to LaKeisha and Kendra’s stories. To the blatant racism behind Aaliyah’s story, who—during a postpartum checkup—was told by her doctor, “I’ll see you in six weeks.” When she asked why, he said, “Because you’ll be pregnant again.” To the mind-boggling statistics that further illustrate the health care crisis facing black women in the South.
We were reminded then of the historic petition that African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson fearlessly delivered to the United Nations in 1951 to bring international attention to American racism. The petition begins:
“Out of the inhuman black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease.”
We knew we were in the right place to bring this pressing injustice to the world’s attention. We knew it had been done before. We also knew change comes slowly, but a government that is not held accountable is no government at all.
Weeks later, when the racial discrimination committee issued its recommendations to the U.S. government, they loudly echoed much of the language we had used in our testimony and accompanying report. The Committee urged the U.S. to make key policy changes to expand coverage for poor women of color most at risk—including in states that have failed to expand Medicaid—and to improve monitoring and accountability mechanisms for preventable maternal deaths.
We had been heard. The conversation—at last—has begun.