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Racism: How It Impacts Black Maternal Mortality
ONC Editorial

Sep 07, 2023

Racial disparities in maternal mortality are obvious. I believe they're primarily the consequence of racism, past and present. (The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, Madeline Leung, whose information can be found below.)

Black women in the United States have a maternal mortality rate three to four times higher than that of white women. Health disparities like this have a common denominator: racism, whether past or present. 

Racism consistently compromises health. Healthcare providers, who are meant to  be reliable and trustworthy when handling medical procedures, steadily mistreat Black women because of implicit biases and racism. In 2018, a survey by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that Black women were more likely to face discrimination and unfair treatment in the healthcare system compared to white women in their maternity care and birthing experience. 

Additionally, in New Jersey, a study conducted between 2016 and 2017 showed that 7.2 percent of mothers experienced racial bias 12 months before giving birth, and most of these mothers were Black or Hispanic. Those who reported their experience of racial bias were also 40 percent more likely to have a premature birth, 40 percent less likely to attend their checkups after giving birth and 2.5 times more likely to have postpartum depression. 

In an article explaining the implications of racism on maternal health, Former Director of Health Care Reform and Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation Jamila Taylor recounts the experiences of two Black mothers. Shalon Irving died days after giving birth to her daughter because her doctors dismissed her conditions and insisted she ‘wait out’ her symptoms of fluctuating blood pressure, headaches and swelling. After days of waiting, she died due to high blood pressure complications. 

Another Black mother, Kira Johnson, died after her cesarean section when the medical team did not prioritize her concerning blood loss. The team did not take her to the exam room for seven hours, and it was there where they found three liters of blood in her abdomen, leaving her to die of postpartum hemorrhage.

Not only does our healthcare system mistreat Black women today, but there are historical instances of mistreatment that have led to understandable feelings of mistrust against healthcare providers. In the past, experimental surgeries (cesarean sections and ovariotomy) were tested on enslaved Black women. Additionally, healthcare segregation lasted until the mid-60s. 

These facts alone are just a small portion of the history of neglect, abuse and trauma that Black women have faced for decades. As a result, Black women may choose not to engage in certain health institutions and avoid seeking care, which can negatively impact their health outcomes. 

America’s history of racism, current providers’ implicit bias and the overall structural racism embedded in our healthcare system has cost us the lives of so many innocent Black women. Black maternal death is undoubtedly important, and Black mothers shouldn’t lose their lives simply because of their skin color. This issue needs to be considered a major public health crisis, and policymakers must find a way to reduce the racial disparity and maternal mortality rates. 

Madeline Leung is a junior studying Public Policy and Medical Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). She plans to pursue a career in the public health field. She is a healthcare policy intern at ONC as of January 2022.  


“Racial Perception and Adverse Birth Outcomes (November 2019).” NJ Department of Health,

Taylor, Jamila K. “Structural Racism and Maternal Health Among Black Women.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, vol. 48, no. 3, Sept. 2020, pp. 506–517, doi:10.1177/1073110520958875

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