“Our Questions And Our Pain Are Belittled”: Why Are So Many Black Women At Risk Of Dying During Childbirth?

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We’re all of the understanding that modern medicine has come a long way. But despite the advancements in technology, treatments and cures, when it comes to bringing life into this world, taking care of Black mothers is not a priority. Black women seem to be losing their babies and their lives at alarming rates. We’re hearing about it more and more.

The New York Times Magazine shared a compelling cover story in April about it that provided all of the statistics. Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants. Black women are three to four times more likely to succumb to issues related to their pregnancy, according to the CDC.

TV’s Judge Glenda Hatchett’s son is suing over the death of his wife, Kyira Johnson, who died after having a C-section and dealing with excessive internal bleeding. She wasn’t taken into surgery until 10 hours after complaining about it.

And who can forget Serena Williams of all people? She revealed that she had to push doctors to give her a CT scan due to previous pulmonary embolism experiences when she couldn’t breathe after having a C-section.

So what is going on? We spoke with Monifa Bandele, the vice president of Maternal Justice Programs for MomsRising, which tackles issues affecting women, mothers and families. She, like many, believes racism in healthcare practices has a lot to do with it. Bandele gave us some insight on why our lives, as well as the lives of our children, tend to be more at risk before, during and after childbirth, and what we can all do about it.

MadameNoire: When racism in healthcare is mentioned, what kind of behaviors are we speaking on specifically? Because as an everyday patient, you don’t know what your feelings of being ignored or talked disrespectfully to could mean, or what your worries fall under, if anything.

Monifa Bandele: Yeah. I think, a classic example people shared a lot of details of was Serena Williams’s story of giving birth because it resonated with so many of us. So one big piece you touched on is being ignored. One minute, Black women’s bodies are hyper-visible to police or when we’re being followed throughout the store. But when we’re in need or in crisis, all of a sudden we’re invisible. And so we see that when we go into the hospitals. Our discomfort, our questions and our pain are belittled. There’s some things that are right under the surface with that. Very recently, a couple of years ago, Harvard did a study of medical students, and they found that a dangerously high amount of them still believe that Black people can tolerate more pain than other people. So there’s a pain mythology that’s prevalent throughout the healthcare system, which also speaks to the amount of care that our bodies are given. If I don’t really think that you can feel pain or you feel as much pain, then I ignore your cries of pain.

A woman shared her birthing story with us. She told those caring for her, “I can’t breathe.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s your allergies because you’re not taking care of yourself because you’re overweight.” That didn’t change until a Black doctor had come, who was like, “No, wait a minute, let me run some tests.” She was about to have a stroke. Her blood pressure, which is very common in pregnancy that’s induced, it was high. She was about to have a stroke and die. And so we see time and time again that Black women aren’t taken seriously. But also, there’s this idea that whatever’s going on with us, our bodies can withstand it. It’s almost like, because we’ve survived so much and because we come across so resilient, we’re being punished for it. Like, “Oh she survived all of that? Have an aspirin.” This is very dangerous. We’ve been working with the family of Kyira Johnson, who’s a woman who died after a C-section in California where she kept saying, “I don’t feel well. I feel drained.” The sheets were pink and she was bleeding out and by the time they caught it, it was too late and she died. But when you hear the story, she was complaining over and over again to the various medical staff, and they would say, “Oh, I’ll be right back,” or whatever. So there’s this ignoring of us. We almost become less important in the hospital setting than other patients, and that’s why you see us dying.

What can be done to combat this? Because like you said, for instance, the woman who ended up close to having a stroke, it wasn’t until she saw a Black doctor who could relate to her that she received the care that she needed. It’s very hard even before delivery when you’re pregnant and you’re trying to get these appointments. And because you want to see somebody sooner or later, you end up with someone who, sometimes, isn’t as compassionate or understanding. So what can we do? Because it feels like you just have no choice when you’re dealing with the medical system.

One of the things we have to do is we have to realize that it’s not our fault. I get very cautious about telling people you should make sure you do this, or you should call this person, because what we’re talking about is not something that an individual can fix. There’s a systemic issue happening, and so collectively as Black women, we need to push for policy change. We need to push for better hospital protocols and accountability in hospitals where Black women are dying. So for example, if you can’t fix these metrics, then you don’t get your funding from wherever you get your funding. There have to be protocols in place that prevent these deaths whether people genuinely care about us or not. Because once you’re in the hospital, you shouldn’t die.

And with Black women, when you ask what we can do, we have to understand that before we even get pregnant, our bodies have been weathered so much due to the toxicity and the trauma of racism and sexism, and so labor is another trauma to the body. It’s a trauma that you’re bringing in a body that’s already beat up by the stresses of living in a country that devalues you, and so we also need to realize that when we’re pushing for change, we actually need to emphasize Black mothers. We need to emphasize Black pregnant women because they’re already coming in, in a more vulnerable state. It’s almost like the opposite of what’s happening, right? Like, “Oh, Black women are resilient. They’re not really feeling pain, so we’re not paying as much attention.” It really needs to flip over because the risks are increased because of all the things that Black women are experiencing, especially this high blood pressure piece. I know I, for one, if I get pulled over by the police, my heart rate goes up and I can feel it. I have never spoken to a Black person that doesn’t feel that way. But white people are like, “Oh, hey, Mr. Officer!” So all these things are eating away at our health and on our bodies. We need to take that into consideration in this movement to decrease maternal mortality. That’s why we’re centering what’s happening with Black women.

I’ve spoken recently to both a midwife and a doula, and the midwife was speaking on the importance of doing your research, speaking up when you don’t like something, and taking control in that way. So if you feel uncomfortable in a moment with a doctor or with conversations that are happening or things that are being said, should you say something in that moment? I know we often feel like these are experts and so we can’t or shouldn’t question certain things.

Yeah. It’s like the doctor says something and we’re like, “Ok,” and we take it at face value and we go. But some of that has to do with our interaction with the healthcare system and doctors in general. There’s always been this power dynamic. We were sharing a story recently of a woman who went to a hospital complaining of pain. They told her, “You’re fine, go home.” She refused to leave and they had her arrested. So we always have a fear of like pushing too much, so we do sometimes come to the hospital setting or to the doctor setting ready to take it at face value. What’s being told to us, we think this person is an expert. But yeah, shop around. If you can, get a midwife and a doula, that’s what I tell people.

But for a lot of our sisters, in the South especially, you can’t use a midwife. You can’t find midwives and they don’t have networks of them. So we like to put stuff like that out there. But we have to keep in mind that some people have very little options. There’s some places where several counties share one hospital, so if you don’t like the doctor there, you’re not going to travel 50 miles to go to another hospital. So it kind of depends. It depends on who you are, where you are. But yeah, you definitely should advocate for yourself as much as you can. When you look at Serena’s story, here’s somebody who’s able to, post-birth, walk down the hallway half-dead to demand a CAT scan. But some people are unconscious, some people are in too much pain. You can’t always advocate for yourself, especially in that moment where you just gave birth.

And I was going to ask you, with J. Marion Sims, the horrific work he did on slaves and him being called the “father of gynecology,” in what ways do you feel like the things he did so long ago are impacting us now?

He set it into motion. He’s a scientist who said that Black women feel much less pain if any at all. He put this out there as a scientific fact. So the people who studied under him for generations studied that. This is coming from him torturing women. It wasn’t just like some theory. He knew it wasn’t true. So he put that out there in a way that impacted generations of Black women who were going to encounter everyone who learned under him. So when you see a recent study, I think it was like four or five years ago, you still have medical students who think that there’s something physiological about Black bodies that helps us to endure more pain. These are scientists. Now you see why that work was so dangerous and so deadly. There’s this idea of him being the father of gynecology when he ultimately, especially for us, caused more harm than good. So that had a huge impact. And then I also think there’s the impact of his work and words, but then it was also the shift in the industry. People used to have babies at home with midwives, but once you shifted to the hospital and the doctor, this whole medicalized system, you see a huge rise in C-sections. I had two and I kind of understood why I had them, but every day we see reports where the U.S. is an outlier. People are having C-sections at enormous rates in the United States and they don’t need them. And it’s major surgery. Why? Because giving birth has become like a major operation and it shouldn’t be that way unless there’s a problem. So I think he set in motion several different things that are all coming to harm us now.

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