Prioritizing Black Maternal Health
By Lily Stuart
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, April brings its own week of recognition. Every year, April 11-17th is dedicated to Black maternal health, a crisis that continues to marginalize Black women and their children.
A study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that Black women are three and a half times more likely to die during childbirth than non-Hispanic white women. But mothers aren’t the only group at risk—their children are too. The Center for American Progress also reports that African Americans have the highest infant mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
African American women are past the precipice of disaster. Black women and children continue to be at the highest health risk, yet are consistently under-publicized. It is vitally important to our community—to Black women and Black infants—to get educated and spark awareness. Doing so begins with understanding the root causes of this inequity in healthcare.
Firstly, the social determinants of health are major proponents of Black maternal mortality. These are the non-medical factors that influence public or personal health, including the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age. They also account for the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. Despite the common claim that lifestyle choices are more important in determining health, the World Health Organization affirms that social determinants account for between 30-55% of health outcomes.
Structural racism, especially within the healthcare system, is one of these “forces and systems” that impact Black women. Simply put, this inequity means that Black women often receive poorer quality care than white women and that Black women are denied care when seeking help and enduring pain. It means that health and social service providers fail to provide care with dignity, recognition, and respect.
Secondly, as a result of social determinants, being denied access to adequate and equal healthcare—and basic human empathy, in many cases—becomes a significant stressor for Black women, and in particular, for Black mothers, who are concerned not only with their own safety but with the safety of their infant. These troubles, combined with the cumulative stress of structural racism and sexism, can trigger a series of biological processes that undermine women’s physical and mental health. When considering that Black mothers face not only these but other structural and social inequities during sensitive developmental periods, the resulting health impacts become apparent. The long-term psychological toll of racism and sexism puts Black women at higher risk for a range of medical conditions that threaten both their and their infants’ lives, including preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure), eclampsia (a complication of preeclampsia characterized by seizures), and embolisms (blood vessel obstructions).
Black maternal mortality is not merely a national issue. It is planted here, in Ohio, and even within our own city of Cleveland. According to a study done by City Lab, Cleveland is one of the worst cities for Black women to live in for health outcomes and overall. More specifically, the Ohio Equity Institute’s annual report found that Cuyahoga County’s infant mortality rate was 7.6 per 1,000 live births in 2020. They also found striking racial disparities: the infant mortality rate is 3.2 per 1,000 for white infants compared to 14.6 per 1,000 among Black infants.
Reading brutal statistic after statistic makes progress and resolution seem bleak. It is in these moments that finding community, addressing the reality of these issues, and working towards solutions are imperative. Thankfully, that is exactly what members of our community are doing!
In February of last year, the Village of Healing Center officially opened its doors. Its mission is to “deliver quality health care services that meet the social and cultural needs of patients, improving health outcomes and quality of care that eliminates racial and ethnic health disparities.” The center continues to serve patients in the community and hosts a multitude of community events. This year, they celebrated their one-year anniversary.
Strides are also being made in the realm of medical research. Recently, the Cleveland Clinic launched two different initiatives. The first of which, the Center for Infant and Maternal Health, is a project created to expand and coordinate services at existing Cleveland Clinic locations, partnering with local community resources to find new solutions to the crisis. The second is a student-driven initiative called Minority Maternal Health Initiative. Established by Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine students, this project connects medical students with pregnant patients of minority backgrounds to assist them in navigating their pregnancy. They also attempt to connect patients with community resources to help them meet their needs.
Despite valiant efforts by students, community, and individuals alike, holding our representatives accountable for Black maternal mortality rates is one of the most effective means of change. Eliminating racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality cannot and will not be successful without prioritizing Black women and infants and addressing inequality within America’s institutions.
For more information on the Village of Healing Center: https://www.villageofhealingcle.com/
For more information on the Cleveland Clinic Initiatives:
For more information on Black maternal mortality: