There are glaring disparities when it comes to the pregnancy complications Black women are at risk for and those numbers are only rising. According to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Maternal Health report:
- Women of color are more likely to have a higher risk of pregnancy-related complications regardless of having commercial health insurance or Medicaid.
- Pregnancy and childbirth complications increased for all women by nearly 10% since 2018, with a marked increase during the pandemic.
- While rates of unexpected outcomes from labor and delivery for all women rise with age, Black women ages 35-44 have a 66% higher risk of experiencing serious complications compared to white women.
Scarce maternity care
According to the March of Dimes, about 7 million women ages 15 to 44 cannot obtain maternity care in their area or have dangerously scarce options. Of these 7 million women, more than 1 in 3 are women of color. “We know that in 54% of all the counties in the country, there is little to no access to obstetric care,” Stacey Stewart, president and CEO of the March of Dimes, shares.
Many women feel this neglect. In a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in partnership with HealthDay, 76% of women strongly or somewhat agreed that there’s not enough focus on health care for mothers after pregnancy and birth, and 71% strongly or somewhat agreed that it feels like mothers are forgotten once the baby is born.
Other contributing factors include gaps in insurance coverage that leave mothers without prenatal or postpartum care and high rates of preexisting conditions. Offering women options to prevent unwanted pregnancies is associated with lower maternal mortality rates, adding to concerns that Roe v. Wade could have deadly implications for mothers. States with restrictive abortion laws already tend to have higher maternal mortality rates.
All of these forces disproportionately affect women of color, but Black mothers face additional, more systemic threats. “Eighty percent of our health is really determined by how we live, whether or not we have access to safe, decent housing, good nutrition, access to good care and all of those things,” Stewart adds.
Dr. Chereena Walker, 33, a hospitalist in Kansas City, Mo., and mother of two, has experienced what too many women of color can relate to: Despite her position as a trained physician, she struggled to have her voice heard by her own doctors as she experienced complications throughout each of her pregnancies.
Walker has a history of asthma, which can up the risk of complications during pregnancy. Like many other preexisting conditions linked to high-risk pregnancies, asthma strikes Black women at significantly higher rates than white women.
During Walker’s first pregnancy, an asthma flare-up at 25 weeks landed her in the hospital, where she was intubated for three days to regain control of her breathing. She found herself in the intensive care unit again during her second pregnancy after developing a respiratory virus and severely low oxygen levels. At that time, the doctors also discovered a small hole in her heart, called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO.
While she carried both pregnancies to term and brought two healthy babies into the world, Walker and her husband were