The Black Maternity Scandal: Dispatches special shows that we are still too numb to the suffering of Black women

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"If the system is saying to us we know there's a problem and we're gonna just put that on a shelf [then] as a Black woman my life is not being prioritised. It's just not fair."

The above is Rachael Buabeng's response to the persistent issue of high maternal mortality rates. She is the founder of Mummys Day Out, a predominantly Black space to empower and encourage women through their motherhood journey.

It was part of the Dispatches documentary covering the Black Maternity Scandal. The overriding take away from the 30 minute special was that we are still too numb to the suffering of Black women - and even at the crossroads of life and death, there's an unnatural lack of urgency in confronting this reality.

Although unrelated to healthcare, the 'unexplained' death of Blessing Olusegun is further evidence of this. Her family still awaits concrete answers over the circumstances surrounding her passing.

Black Maternal Scandal

The documentary included the testimonies of several Black women including Naomi Ventour, Mars Lord, Jade who experienced a 'near miss' and more.

In Jade's case, she experienced haemorrhaging and required a blood transfusion after her husband's concerns over her wellbeing were ignored. She elected for a c-section and described her pregnancy as largely normal. However, after taking morphine to manage her pain she described the following hours as 'a bit of a daze'. Her husband worried about the well-being and state of his wife.

He was told that her reaction to the morphine was natural but It wasn't until 12 hours after that she was given an antidote to reverse the effects. After also insisting that she was in pain, a scan confirmed that there were 6 litres of blood in her stomach.

Would I be shown more empathy if I was white? Possibly, yeah. Am I fearful of being that strong, opinionated person because I am Black and don't want to come across aggressive? I guess when you sit here and the whole reality of was I not listened to because of the quality of my skin, that cuts deep"

Thankfully, Jade survived her complication, but an unsettling number of those who don't are Black women.

Black women are more likely to die from complications surrounding pregnancy and childbirth than women of other races. MBRRACE-UK's December 2020 report looked at women in the UK who died during pregnancy or 'up to one year after the 2016-18 period'. The findings from the study were consistent with those seen in the documentary.

There remains a more than four-fold difference in maternal mortality rates amongst women from Black ethnic backgrounds and an almost two-fold difference amongst women from Asian ethnic backgrounds compared to white women, emphasising the need for a continued focus on action to address these disparities."

MBRRACE-UK, 2020

This fourfold difference may even rise to fivefold depending on the source. Last year, during a committee meeting on Black people, racism and human rights, Dr Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent stated that the mortality rate for Black women in childbirth is five times higher than it is for white women.

While seven in 100,000 white women die of pregnancy complications or childbirth, for Black women that figure is 38 out of 100,000.

It's an issue that is equally relevant in the United States. A recent look into the problem was reported by the Commonwealthfund. Once again, it found that Black women were more likely to die from childbirth or pregnancy-related complications than any race.

Black moms are roughly three-and-a-half times more likely to die in childbirth or of pregnancy-related complications than white moms, while American Indian and Alaska Native women are about two-and-a-half times more likely."

Commonwealthfund, 2020

The fact that these disparities exist for other women from non-white backgrounds is also telling. During the documentary, Dr Christine Ekechi explained how the starting point for medical research has played into this.

When medicine first started it evolved from the norm - which essentially was the white male. Everyone else has been included in that system but not necessarily on an equal footing."

Dr Christine Ekechi

Crucially, she also explained how being racialised in society leaves Black women vulnerable to the biggest predictors associated with complications during child-birth.

The latter partially explains the persistence of the issue today, but it doesn't explain the lack of urgency in outlining targeted measures to address it.

The NHS introduced their Maternity Transformation Programme, "Better Births" in 2016. This was aimed at improving the outcomes of maternity services in England. The 2020 update placed greater emphasis on providing continuity of care from midwives, but as of yet, no specific measures to address the overarching disparities have been outlined.

Continuity of care will be rolled out to 75% of women with a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background and from the most deprived areas by 2024 on the principle of proportionate universalism, so as to reduce inequalities in stillbirth and preterm birth rates."

Better Births: Four Years On: A review of progress

The documentary highlights the positive effects which are being felt at Newham hospital for adopting the continuity plan. While it forms part of the long term solution, the lack of targeted policy outside of this in addition to the 2024 goal, belies the fact that this is an urgent issue requiring immediate action.

When the issue is so glaring, it seems fair to conclude that something needs to change, because the measures to safeguard against these outcomes are not having the desired effect. How much more aggressive should the demand for change be when the cost is as high as a would-be Mothers life? 

The incredible advocacy of Tinuke Awe and Rebecca Clotilde Abe was rightly mentioned. Their work as founders of Fivexmore helped to return the issue to national attention during last summer's protests. A session in the House of Commons is scheduled for April 19 and you can support them by writing to your MP and asking them to represent you at the debate

Since last summer, they have continued to offer their expertise to help positively change the maternal health outcomes of Black women. Even this however is a sorry reminder of the harrowing Black maternity scandal.


Mayowa Ayodele

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