New commission focuses on racial disparities in maternal health

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Joyce Doherty
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — Women of color are four to five times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared to white women, a statistic that has grown over the past few decades. The national maternal mortality rate has risen 2.5% since 1987, and women of color have been most affected.

Those statistics were a focus of a public meeting of the Racial Inequities in Maternal Health Commission last week to discuss the problems facing mothers of color in Massachusetts, particularly the treatment of black mothers during and after pregnancy.

The meeting consisted of data presented by the Department of Health and testimony from black mothers and maternal health organizations.

The commission was created earlier this year by the passage of a bill sponsored by Reps. Kay Khan, D-Newton, and Liz Miranda, D-Boston, in an effort to provide guidance on dismantling racial disparities in maternal health. It seeks to assess research and data regarding maternal health and the extent which racism and other forms of discrimination affect mothers of color.

“We need strategies that are cross-agency partnerships and advocacies to impact the social determinants of health, but we have to spend time to understand these structural issues so we can mitigate the chance of unintended consequences of our actions,” Dr. Hafsatou Diop of the Department of Public Health said during the public meeting.

Due to the lack of proper or effective maternal treatment for Black expecting mothers, their children are suffering.

“That is 300 Black babies dying in the Commonwealth every year,” Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, D-Boston, said.

new bill, sponsored by Fluker Oakley, would allow boards of health to create teams to examine fetal and infant mortality in order to remove barriers to allow effective treatment and improve healthier births. About seven Black babies are dying for every 1,000 live births in Massachusetts, according to Peristats.

Melody Cunningham Lopez, a mother of five from Boston, recalled her own experience giving birth as a Black woman, in Massachusetts, citing none of them as positive due to the poor treatment she received from medical professionals while in labor such as non-consensual episiotomies and being ignored while her baby was crowning.

Now a doula, midwife and lactation counselor herself, Cunningham Lopez is still seeing these problems affecting other black women.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

“I’m on the other side and I’m still hearing it; the same stories but different black faces,” Cunningham Lopez said. “I do this work and I can speak and advocate but I’m still virtually powerless…[and] it’s so unfortunate that these things are so ingrained in these institutions.”

The death rate is greater for women of color because of poorer access to prenatal health so pregnancy complications are not identified early on, according to Joanne Murray, executive director of the Women’s Fund SouthCoast.

By recognizing these social determinants of health, better preventative measures to eradicate racial inequities in maternal care will be created, Diop said.

“Public health is dedicated to understanding these different factors and understanding policies in different sectors and how they perpetuate poor health outcomes,” Diop said.

For example, birthing centers are generally not located within communities of color or those of lower-income since many are owned by white women in more affluent areas, according to Dananai Morgan, a Dorchester woman working to establish a birthing center in her neighborhood.

“The number one way birthing centers are started in this country is by midwives’ personal savings and lines of credit,” Nashira Baril of the Neighborhood Birth Center said. “They are unsustainable and racially redline access to midwives and also access to wealth.”

Delivering a baby at a Massachusetts hospital can be costly and with home deliveries usually not covered by insurance, it leaves mothers of color with limited options. Birthing centers can alleviate these costs and also provide better care, particularly when they are run by women of color.

Today, less than 2% of midwives in this country are Black and only 13 of the 400 birth centers nationwide are POC-owned, according to a study by City University New York.

“Pregnancy is a life or death issue,” Cambridge School Committee member Ayesha Wilson said. “Black women feel like they are fighting with doctors saying ‘Hear me! See me! I’m not a textbook example, I’m a real person.’”

This article originally appeared in South Coast Today.

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