Black women are more likely to die from pregnancy complications than any other demographic group, the CDC says. Advocates fear the pandemic could make it worse By Nicquel Terry Ellis and Adrienne Broaddus, CNN
August 25, 2021
At six months pregnant, Nisaa Borer Nelson was diagnosed with Covid-19. Instead of oxygen, Borer Nelson says nurses at a Minneapolis hospital gave her an IV saline drip.
She had no one advocating for her, she recalls. Her husband wasn’t allowed in her room because of Covid restrictions. She was in distress and worried. The couple already had picked out a name for their fifth child she feared wouldn’t survive.
“I remember being in the hospital just praying … Lord, if this is your will I accept it, but if it’s not give me the strength to fight,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Borer Nelson fought, and her and her daughter Joy, now two months old, have since recovered. Yet, the frustration over nurses dismissing her health concerns, echoes a reality that mothers, advocates and lawmakers say has helped fuel a maternal health crisis in the United States that disproportionately impacts Black women.
The issue, advocates fear, could be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which took a turn in recent weeks when the Delta variant and communities with low vaccination rates led to a surge in cases. The pandemic already has laid bare existing health disparities. Yet, it’s too soon to tell what long-term impact the pandemic will have on the maternal health crisis, experts say. Pregnant women remain at high risk for severe complications and hospitalization if they contract Covid-19, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strengthened its recommendation for them to get vaccinated.
The disparity has reemerged as an urgent issue for both lawmakers and health care providers after a slate of bills to combat the crisis were introduced in Congress earlier this year. New data also shows that Black women continue to face a greater risk of childbirth complications than White women.
The US has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries. About 700 women die each year in the US due to a pregnancy-related complication either during pregnancy or within the year after delivery, says Dr. Wanda Barfield, Director of the CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health.
“What’s even more striking is when you’re looking at the differences between Black and White women,” she says.
Policymakers say federal legislation is key to overcoming centuries of health care bias and barriers to access that have led to poor outcomes for Black mothers.
Earlier this year, Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Lauren Underwood and Rep. Alma Adams unveiled the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021. The sweeping legislation includes several bipartisan bills that seek to address the social determinants of maternal health with funding for community-based organizations, improving data collection and addressing the impacts of Covid-19 and climate change on outcomes for mothers and infants. The lawmakers are lobbying for the House and Senate leadership to include the bill in the next Covid-19 recovery package.
Hear Black mothers recall their experiences with childbirth as well as doctors and a lawmaker who are fighting to end the Black maternal health crisis.
Courtesy Rasheeta Chandler Rasheeta Chandler A professor fighting to restore trust
Congress is expected to resume conversations about the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act and its contents when lawmakers return from recess this fall.
However, doctors who have been on the frontlines of the crisis say the solution is more than just legislation. They say the health care system needs to address the implicit bias and racism that has led doctors to ignore Black women’s pain and suffering. Studies show that Black people are systemically undertreated for pain compared to White people because of racial bias. Research also points to a belief among some White medical professionals that Black bodies are biologically different and can endure more pain than White bodies.
Dr. Rasheeta Chandler, assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University, says addressing the maternal health crisis will require doctors and providers to reimagine how they care for Black mothers. Chandler suggests what she calls an “immersive” strategy where hospitals partner with Black and brown communities and send their staff out to meet with women who have concerns about pregnancy and childbirth. This strategy will help with cultural barriers as well as building trust, she said.
“I think we are on track if we can get something passed. If we keep sitting on our hands, and twiddling our thumbs, and having these debates while real people are having real problems and need real help, then nothing gets done. So yes, I think there is potential for there to be a huge impact, but that’s only if lawmakers do their job, and move these bills forward that can help the American people and particularly Black women who are dying in childbirth or after childbirth.” Chandler is also urging lawmakers to pass legislation that will protect Black moms, saying laws determine how public money is spent and whether marginalized groups have access to health insurance. A lot of Black maternal health legislation has been held up or never passed, and that is part of the problem, she said. For example, a different version of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act was introduced in 2020 by Adams, Underwood and now-Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a Senator but progress stalled.
Courtesy Alma Adams’ office Rep. Alma Adams A lawmaker fighting for better care for Black mothers
As a mother and grandmother, Rep. Alma Adams says the fight to get Black maternal health legislation passed is a personal one. The North Carolina representative co-sponsored the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, and in May she was able to get The Protecting Moms Who Served Act — one of 12 bills included in the package — passed in the House. The Protecting Moms Who Served Act seeks to eliminate maternal mortality, morbidity and disparities among veterans.
“We have all kinds of testimony from women who tell us that they are basically being ignored. Their pain is not considered to be something that’s important to doctors primarily because they are Black women. It doesn’t have anything to do with how much insurance you have, or how well off you are. It’s about the attitudes and the p
Black and pregnant during a pandemic
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