Reducing Racial Disparities in Maternal Mortality

This article is part of a series of staff insights, observations and perspectives to commemorate Black History Month. Click here to see similar posts.

As an avid tennis fan, Serena Williams is one of my personal heroes. Throughout the years, I’ve watched her live and on television play some of the best tennis the sport has seen–captivating and inspiring audiences around the world. In 2017, she won the Australian Open (her 23rd grand slam) while she was eight weeks pregnant. When the news of her pregnancy went public, her colleagues, fans, and friends expressed their joy and best wishes for her pregnancy. Two years later, she’s back on the court with a happy and healthy baby girl, however, her journey to this point was not easy. Serena authored a CNN op-ed about her life-threatening experience giving birth.

“It began with a pulmonary embolism… Because of my medical history with this problem, I live in fear of this situation. So, when I fell short of breath, I didn’t wait a second to alert the nurses. This sparked a slew of health complications that I am lucky to have survived. First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism. I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs. When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed…”

Serena is not the only black mother or mother to experience life threatening complications during childbirth but by sharing her story, she highlighted racial disparities in maternal mortality rates in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control, black women in the U.S. are over three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes than white women. The CDC estimates that over half of these deaths are preventable, however, because of delayed responses and denial from healthcare teams, maternal deaths persist.

As more women raise awareness of the racial disparities in maternal mortality, simple innovations, legislation, and grassroots movements are poised to make major improvements in the health outcomes of black mothers in the United States. The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health, a national data-driven maternal safety and quality improvement initiative, developed multiple patient safety bundles to save lives and reduce maternal morbidity. Its bundles are being used in hospitals to help healthcare teams identify signs of complications before they become fatal for patients. Congress recently signed the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act into law, a bipartisan bill to improve maternal mortality review committees and build robust information- sharing networks for best practices to combat maternal morbidity. Grassroots organizations across the country like Black Mammas Matter Alliance are advocating for black maternal health rights and justice.

Although we’ve made progress in reducing maternal morbidity, there is more work to be done to achieve parity in maternal health and reduce maternal mortality rates. During Black History Month, we cannot forget the important role that black women and black mothers play in American society and the importance of women around the world. As Serena reminded us with her story, “every mother everywhere, regardless of race or background, deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.”

BHM 2019