Why Are So Many Black Women Still Dying in Childbirth in the U.S.?

Approximately 700 women die each year from pregnancy complications, more than half of which could have been prevented, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The report also found that a vast racial disparity in maternal deaths, with Black, Native American, and Alaska Native women dying three times as often as white women. What’s wrong with this picture?? (Answer: so, so much).

The shocking report found that pregnancy-related deaths were split evenly during pregnancy (31%), during delivery and up to a week after (36%), and one week to one year postpartum (33%), with the leading causes of death being stroke, infection, and bleeding.

“Our new analysis underscores the need for access to quality services, risk awareness, and early diagnosis, but it also highlights opportunities for preventing future pregnancy-related deaths,” Wanda Barfield, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., director of the Division of Reproductive Health at the CDC, said in a statement. “By identifying and promptly responding to warning signs not just during pregnancy, but even up to a year after delivery, we can save lives.”

But one of the major problems in treating and identifying pregnancy-related health risks could actually start in the doctor’s office. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says “implicit bias” may be a significant factor in how medical professionals treat and counsel non-Hispanic Black patients. As a result, Black women may not be given the same treatment options and resources as white patients.

This bias is particularly alarming, as the ACOG notes that Black women are most likely to die from cardiovascular disease, preeclampsia, and eclampsia, all of which can be detected through routine checks. Doctors should be taking patients’ vitals at all appointments, in addition to asking about any symptoms including fatigue, swelling, shortness of breath, and chest pains.

Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau found disparities in health insurance coverage between Black and white women; approximately 14% of Black women are uninsured, while only 8% of white women lack coverage. Even worse, the majority of uninsured Black women are between the ages of 15 and 44, when they’re most likely to become pregnant. Without access to affordable health care, some women remain financially unable to seek preventative treatment before, during, and after pregnancy.

Income disparities and poverty rates amongst Native American and Black Americans are higher than those amongst white Americans, which also factors into the kind of care mothers can afford.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The CDC, along with a handful of politicians, is urging doctors to provide better care for all Americans, regardless of race or income, as well as pushing for better sex education and accessible resources.

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