February is Black History Month in the United States. It’s a time when we honor the amazing contributions African-Americans have made to this country, even in the face of adversity. It’s important to look back at the health injustices black women have faced and continue to face. It gives light to why black women are still fighting for health equity today.
In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims performed obstetric surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia, sometimes several times on the same woman. Many people of that time period incorrectly believed that black women had “thicker skin” and did not feel pain like their white counterparts. He would negotiate the use of these women with their “masters” and later conducted the same procedures on white women, providing them with variations of pain relief.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were taken without her consent. These HeLa cells became an important part of research that led to the polio vaccine, as well as medicines to fight cancer and other diseases. However, despite Lacks’ contribution to the health of millions, her family didn’t always have access to these kinds of treatments and breakthroughs.
In the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the Civil Rights movement, went to the hospital for a minor surgery and was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Experiences like this have led to decades of much needed confidence-building and systemic change in our health care practices.
Health disparities today
Decades later, the lived experience of black women in the U.S. can be seen in disparities (differences) in access to medical services and care. These disparities have caused alarming trends in the health of black moms and babies. For example, in the United States rates of preterm birth, low birthweight and infant mortality (death) are higher for black infants than for white infants. More black women die from health complications related to pregnancy than women of other races. This is not acceptable.
Here are some important facts to know. In the United States:
- The preterm birth rate among black moms is 49 percent higher than the rate among all other women. There are many things that can cause premature birth, but researchers are looking at social determinants of health closely. These are conditions in which you’re born and grow, work, live and age that affect your health throughout your life. Some examples include your environment, what’s in your community, and your health and health care.
- Black children face the highest mortality rate among racial/ethnic groups. The rate for black children is more than 2 times higher than the rate for Asian children and 1½ times higher than the rate for white children.
- The maternal death rate for black women is higher than for women of other races. About 700 women die each year in the United States from problems during or after pregnancy. More than 50,000 women have a near-miss (nearly die) from severe complications from labor and childbirth every year. Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
- Many of these deaths can be prevented. Getting regular health care before, during and after pregnancy can help prevent them, but not every woman in the U.S. gets good maternity care. One reason for this is that many women live in a maternity care desert. This is an area where there are not enough hospitals, health care providers or health care services for pregnant and postpartum women. More than 5 million women in the U.S. live in a maternity care desert.
March of Dimes won’t stop.
March of Dimes fights for the health of all moms and babies. We’re advocating for policies to protect them. We’re working to radically improve the health care they receive. We’re pioneering research to find solutions. We’re empowering families with programs, knowledge and tools to have healthier pregnancies. By uniting communities, we’re building a brighter future for us all.
What you can do
You can take action now and help us fight for the health of all moms and babies:
- Visit marchofdimes.org/blanketchange to learn more about what you can do to help every pregnant woman in America get the care she needs.
- Learn about the signs and symptoms of health complications after birth. Knowing when something isn’t right can help save your life. Sharing this information may help save others.
- Join the March of Dimes advocacy network to support legislation that can help protect all moms and babies.
- Sign on to the March of Dimes Prematurity Collaborative Birth Equity Consensus Statement to encourage others to apply the social determinants lens to research, policy and practice.