Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Fight For Black Mothers' Health

Stress stemming from racism takes a toll on black mothers' health, writes Akilah Wise, Rollins School of Public Health fellow.

By Akilah Wise

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It is one of the most grave public health statistics in the country: Black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.

Chronic stress is seen as the primary factor in racial disparities in maternal death. It also can lead to poor sleep quality, heart disease, and accelerated biological aging.

Such factors as poverty, polluted neighborhoods, discrimination, abuse, and exploitation undermine the health of black women and members of other marginalized communities.

Despite its wealth, the U.S. has a weak and fragmented social safety net, including a health care system that continues to fail those most at risk. Access to health care is largely determined by employment status in the U.S., and high-quality programs that protect poor and vulnerable people are few and far between.

Organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance are advocating for real change. The alliance is a committee led by black women with a mission to “advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for black maternal health, rights, and justice.”

Tiffany Hailstorks, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory, says, “As a provider, it is important to recognize the direct impact of lived experiences on one’s health, as well as to understand how these further influence health behavior and compliance with recommended treatments.”

A recent New York Times Magazine article about the disparity points out that high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are two of the leading causes of maternal death, and hypertensive disorders in pregnancy, including pre-eclampsia, have been on the rise over the past two decades. A Department of Health and Human Services report last year found that pre- eclampsia and eclampsia seizures are 60 percent more common in African-American women than in white women, and also more severe. “Recognizing the stark difference in health outcomes for women of color is only the first step in the fight to combat racial disparities,” says Hailstorks.

Quality prenatal care and attentive medical caretakers are clearly the first line of defense in detecting and monitoring conditions that place black expectant mothers particularly at risk.

Strengthening the systems that support better general health can mitigate the stressors of pregnancy and childbirth. And providing additional support to pregnant women, new mothers, and their families, such as home visit programs, can improve care management for at-risk women.

More than 80 percent of black mothers are considered breadwinners in their households, meaning black mothers are usually working mothers as well as caregivers to others in their families and communities.

When we, as a society, fight to protect black women’s health, we are supporting their own strength and resiliency. And we are paying it forward to the next generation, who deserve a solid start.

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