Marcela Howell, founder, and director of the Washington, D.C.-based, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda says that systemic racism in the U.S. medical system is killing black pregnant women and their newborns.
In an op-ed published today - Mother’s Day - in The Hill, Howell says that black women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, and black babies are twice as likely to be stillborn than whites in the United States.
She says: "It’s because our doctors aren’t listening to us. Black women are facing a deadly health crisis, as they and their newborns are the most likely in the United States to die from pregnancy complications."
Howell adds succinctly: "Black women find ourselves at the intersection of sexism and racism in medicine. We carry the burden of institutionalized racism and extreme physical and physiological stress that accompanies that burden. We know our bodies, yet when we seek help, we are ignored — both because we are black and because we are women."
Howell says that black women have less access to quality health care than whites and that, "Lack of access to quality health care and racism exacerbate the general physical and emotional toll that comes to any woman who has gone through childbirth."
Howell, a trained lawyer and black and women’s rights activist for 40 years, says there’s also a tremendous shortage of "black health care providers, including OB-GYN and nurse midwives, is one of the reasons that we cannot get the culturally competent care we need."
A report that Howell’s organization published last year reads that "six percent of physicians are Black; 4 percent of OB-GYNs are Black, and fewer than 4 percent of certified nurse-midwives are Black."
The black rights advocate says the problem is bigger than just the lack of black physicians and midwives. She says there is an "inherent distrust of black women by medical professionals. Doctors don’t listen to us and they write off or completely ignore the reality of our pain."
Howell sites the case of tennis champion Serena Williams nearly dying from complications from an embolism - a blood clot in the lungs - after giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia last September, noting that doctors dismissed Williams’ initial concerns she couldn’t breathe well - symptoms of a pulmonary embolism.
There is also the case of civil rights activist Erica Garner, says Howell, who died of heart complications four months after delivering her second child.
The stress of racism and "anxiety takes huge tolls on not only our mental, but also our physical health. Poverty and racism have a cumulative impact on our bodies before, during, and after pregnancy. On top of this, we are less likely to receive timely and consistent prenatal care."
Howell stresses, "Ensuring black women’s right to access high-quality, affordable health care before, during and after pregnancy is a basic human rights issue." She adds that doctors and the U.S. healthcare system need to be held "accountable for their deadly actions."