Stephanie Spencer, BSN, RN, LCCE, CLC
The United States ranks last among industrialized nations in maternal health. For every 100,000 domestic births, close to 700 mothers die (2018 data). Maternal health at home lags behind the likes of Bahrain, Albania and Tajikistan.
For Black women like me, the numbers are even worse – we are more apt to die during pregnancy or delivery at a rate twice that of white mothers. And here’s an even more confounding figure: the rate of maternal death for college-educated Black women stands on par with white moms without degrees.
In 1985, my 13-year-old self was excited by the anticipated arrival of a new sibling. But 33 weeks into the pregnancy, complications arose, and notwithstanding my mother’s master’s level college education, she was refused quality care. As a Black woman, her voice was silenced, and she ultimately endured a heartrending loss and fought for her own survival.
37 years later...
The racism that is embedded in many parts of our healthcare system – particularly in the area of maternal care – continues to rear its head. According to national surveys commissioned by the National Partnership for Women and Families, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for women’s health, Black women are more likely than white women to report a lack of autonomy when it came to decisions during labor and delivery. We are far more likely to see our preferences and concerns about birth disregarded by the healthcare professionals around us.
That tragic episode of so many years ago ultimately became a life-altering experience for me, and when I founded Urban Baby Beginnings in 2015, I began to broaden our mission beyond its original focus on early childhood education. Based on what I was observing among the families we were supporting – overlaid with my own personal experiences – I recognized that there were gaps in the kinds of services that pregnant and new moms needed. And those disparities were leading to adverse outcomes during pregnancy, delivery and post-partum care, including preterm births, maternal mortality, infant mortality and a low incidence of breastfeeding at discharge.
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We are forging critical links between healthcare providers and our own communities – the mothers, perinatal specialists and doulas who are trained in culturally sensitive ways to not only provide every-step-of-the-way guidance for the moms but, importantly, as their advocates as well.