Un-American Maternal Mortality Rates

Thanks to Serena Williams speaking out about her birthing experience, the appalling mortality rates for African-American women in this country are getting some attention from main stream media. Being a world class athlete couldn’t insulate Serena from the racism that accompanies the birthing experience in America. There are many people who have been researching the reasons of the difference in mom and infant mortality rates between black women and white women in this country for decades, however as is often the case with statistics that reflect poorly on our society, it takes a star or an athlete’s attention to shine the light where the general public can see it.

In case you missed it, the numbers are truly appalling. African-American moms and newborns are four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts and there are many, many reasons for this.  One, as was the case with Serena Williams, is that healthcare providers and doctors are less likely to believe black women when they complain of pain. Another reason that until recently, was thought to play a large factor was poverty, however recent studies show that even middle class black women in this country who have access to care are more likely to die in childbirth than white middle-class women.

A newer idea being floated, is racism. You may wonder how racism can affect health and birth outcomes, but if you can believe that black American’s experience racism regularly in the public spaces they need to traverse, you can believe that their stress hormone (cortisol) levels would be unnaturally high for longer periods of time than white people. And we all know how damaging prolonged, high stress can be on anyone’s body. You can make a natural assumption that those hormones would damage a fetus and a pregnant mom.  If this were completely untrue, than the ‘JJ Model’ pioneered by midwife Jenny Joseph, from Orlando Florida, shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.

I was introduced to this model in a Ted talk by Miriam Zoila Perez, a doula, writer, speaker and activist. What I loved most about her talk was that she spent less time talking about the various reasons that we have these racial disparities in childbirth, and more time talking about an effective solution that she had found in Ms. Joseph’s clinical model. (You can watch the Ted talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/miriam_zoila_perez_how_racism_harms_pregnant_women_and_what_can_help?language=en ).

From the website Commonsense Childbirth: “The JJ Way® Model is effective in reducing disparities and improving outcomes because it operates from the premise that every woman wants a healthy baby and that every woman deserves one. Additionally, patients and their family supporters (if any) are encouraged to operate the same way and are therefore invited in as an integral part of each prenatal visit. From the very first appointment the goal of a full-term healthy baby is emphasized and all subsequent measures stress that theme until safe arrival at that point.”

What struck me the most was that the basis of the model is compassion, love and equality. That’s it, nothing complicated, just treating people the way you’d want to be treated. And if you’re not a black woman who has been pregnant in this country, you may not know just how lacking those qualities are in healthcare. We joke about bedside manner, but I ask you, do you like being condescended too, belittled, made to feel inferior and stupid? What, that’s not ok with you? Because it’s supposed to be ok to black women every day in this country. I’ve been to prenatal appointments where I’ve admitted to not following all of the doctors recommendations and been made to feel as if I was a bad person, someone who didn’t care enough about her baby to do ‘the right thing’. There was no compassion, no alternative ideas floated. It was just, stop making excuses and do what you’re told, because if something bad happens to your baby, it will be your fault for not doing what you were told. My explanations were pegged as excuses that needed no further exploration.

And if you’re not a black woman who has to experience these things why should you care? It would be nice to think that people care about their fellow Americans, but since this obviously isn’t the case, do you care about healthcare costs in this country? Having an entire segment of the population sick isn’t good for any society, economically or otherwise. For those of us who just care how people are treated, we can share the “The JJ Way” with friends and family that are in the healthcare industry, helping to spread the method nation-wide. We will be a healthier society when all our members are valued taken care of the same way.

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