The Racist History of Black Maternal Health
America’s Black maternal health issues can be traced to its long history of subjugating and brutalizing Black bodies. Within the framework of slavery, Black women’s childbearing abilities added to the objectification of their bodies. Women were treated as animals, forced to reproduce to create a larger labor force for plantation owners and the larger Southern economy.
(Depiction of Dr. James Marion Sims experimenting on enslaved Black women)
Scientific discoveries in gynecology and obstetrics are in large part due to experiments on enslaved Black women forced to be test subjects against their will. The “Father of Gynecology” James Marion Sims infamously used enslaved Black women for his experiments without anesthesia, operating under the notion that Black people did not feel pain. This is the mentality with which gynecology and obstetrics started, and unfortunately these sentiments incepted an implicit bias against the needs of Black mothers. This long-standing tradition of objectifying Black people and viewing our bodies as disposable has created a culture toxic to healthy Black pregnancies.
(Dierdre Cooper Owens's Medical Bondage is an important chronology of racist gynecological practitioners and how they informed current medical bias about Black people)
The medical field is still polluted with bias against Black bodies, and many textbooks and reference photos do not even feature subjects of color. This issue was brought to the forefront a few years ago when tennis star Serena Williams spoke out about her postpartum pulmonary embolism and how her celebrity status shielded her from the racism many Black women face. In an interview with the BBC Williams disclosed, “Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the health care that I have ― and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same health care, without the same response, it’s upsetting… I think there’s a lot of pre-judging, absolutely, that definitely goes on. And it needs to be addressed.”
The prejudging Williams mentioned has led to bleak statistics and mortality rates. ABC News disclosed that the racial disparity between mortality rates has heightened since the pandemic, with Black women dying at three times the rate of white women (up 2.5% since 2019). With white women at 19.1 deaths per 100,000 mothers, and Hispanic women at 18.2 deaths per 100,000 mothers, Black women’s 55.3 deaths per 100,000 mothers displays the sinister side of America’s black and white divide. Although no mother should be lost while bringing life into this world, it is important to talk about America’s racialized history of slavery and how current bias permeating the medical field leads to preventable deaths today.
Luckily there are organizations aiming to make a change, Rachel Nicks’s organization Birth Queen is saving Black lives by educating, supporting, and empowering Black parents throughout the birthing process. Organizations such as The National Birth Equity Collaborative (NBEC), Sista Midwife Productions, Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), MomsRising, and Mama Glow are providing resources, community, and collaboration in the fight against the Black maternal health crisis.
Our nation's history of policing and dehumanizing Black bodies goes beyond the unjust killing of Black people by police forces, it is also present in our delivery rooms, wellness visits, and gynecological exams. Although it is saddening and disheartening, we must talk about the lack of care Black mothers are experiencing in the United States, not only for their sake but for the health and safety of their children as well. Black bodies are not commodities, objects, or tools for the whims of white men, they are valuable, and they matter.
For more information on Black maternal health statistics visit: Working Together to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality | Health Equity Features | CDC