Systemic Racism and Sexism Contribute to Higher Maternal Death Rates for Black Women, Says U.N. Report

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A recent analysis conducted by the United Nations has shed light on the experiences of Black women during pregnancy and childbirth in the Americas, revealing that systemic racism and sexism within medical systems, rather than genetic or lifestyle factors, are the primary reasons behind their increased likelihood of facing severe complications or even death. The report, published by the United Nations Population Fund, surveyed data from several countries in the Americas, including the United States, and uncovered disturbing patterns of denial of medication, physical and verbal abuse, delayed treatment, and more severe complications faced by Black women compared to their white counterparts.

Disparities in Healthcare: The U.N. analysis revealed that Black women were more likely to experience higher mortality rates during or shortly after childbirth, although the report did not provide specific figures on the extent of the disparity. This issue extends beyond the United States, as maternal death rates and discriminatory experiences have become a growing concern across the Americas. Unfortunately, direct country-to-country comparisons were challenging due to the lack of racial data collected in most of the nations analyzed. However, the U.N. researchers managed to include nine countries in the report, namely Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and Uruguay.

Significance of the Report: This is the first comprehensive examination by the U.N. of available data regarding the maternal health of Black women throughout the Americas. Dr. Natalia Kanem, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund and a physician of Black descent, expressed her deep concern over the issue, labeling it as a human rights crisis that often goes unnoticed by decision-makers. The report challenges the historical attribution of high maternal death rates among Black women to genetics and lifestyle choices, highlighting the prevalence of bias that starts during medical education and permeates throughout healthcare delivery systems.

Challenging Biases and Misconceptions: The report exposed several disturbing aspects of medical education, including erroneous claims that Black women have less sensitive nerve endings, requiring less anesthesia, and faster blood coagulation compared to white women. Such misconceptions lead to delayed treatment for dangerous hemorrhages and unnecessary interventions when nonwhite variability in childbirth is deemed “abnormal or high-risk.” Dr. Kanem emphasized that attributing a Black woman’s death during childbirth to lifestyle or individual failure is a simplistic and misguided perspective that fails to address the systemic issues at hand.

Increasing Maternal Mortality Rates: The overall maternal mortality ratio in Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean has seen an alarming increase of approximately 15 percent between 2016 and 2020. This rise has prompted officials to explore potential contributing factors, including race. With over 200 million people of African descent in the Americas, the racial disparities in maternal death rates are striking. In the United States, while the country boasts the lowest overall maternal death rate, the racial disparities are significant, with Black women being three times more likely to die during or soon after childbirth compared to white women. These disparities persist across income and education levels, highlighting the urgent need for intervention.

Call to Action: The United Nations is urging medical schools, healthcare providers, and governments to take immediate action. Medical schools are being urged to reevaluate their curriculums and eliminate biases and stereotypes. Hospitals must strengthen policies to prevent denial of care and patient abuse. Innovative strategies should be developed to help Black women overcome structural barriers, such as lack of access to reliable transportation and insurance, that hinder their access to prenatal care. The report also encourages collaboration with traditional healers and midwives within Black communities to navigate long-standing reservations and improve healthcare experiences. Furthermore, the report highlights the lack of surveillance data as a major obstacle to addressing the problem effectively, emphasizing the need for enhanced data collection efforts in every country to inform targeted interventions and drive positive change.


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