Mamazine Moment, Self-Care, The Journey, Uncategorized

Justice for Black Maternal Health: The Data, History, & Organizing We Need

Daphne Thompson | April 11, 2021

In February, we hosted a Mama Glow Webinar centering Black HERstory within the fight for reproductive justice. The conversation, presented by Elvie, featured professional wisdom and lived experience from Kimberly Seals Allers, Kelly Davis, Sevonna Brown, and Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens. The panel agreed that data, history, and organizing are what justice is made of and that all three are required in order to actually work toward protecting the lives of Black birthing people and their babies.

Here’s what we learned:

Data

Black women are central characters when we’re looking at the history of gynecology, and it doesn’t take long to see the racial and gendered fictions and how/where they occurred when the medical books were being written. The consequences of that foundation are quite literally life or death, as we know that Black mothers are 3-4x more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts. When we ignore what is happening to black bodies, everyone suffers because we are not advancing together. 

Unfortunately, we have no idea of the totality of maternal mortality in this country, as it is documented state-by-state, with estimated under-reporting. Kimberly, who suffered from fibroids before ultimately deciding on her own terms (with her own wealth of knowledge) to get a hysterectomy, points out that the current gynecological system doesn’t work for anyone, but is especially harmful to BIPOC women. When it comes to systemic racism within reproductive health care, she fears that the statistics show that it’s about whose reproductive organs (and the product of those reproductive organs) are valued, and whose are not. 

Those stats are limited, too, as they are only counting morbidity. They fail to bring forth all of the negative experiences and traumas that must be addressed and held accountable in order to show the true scope of this crisis. Sevonna reminded us that from the very first menstrual cycle, or pap smear, or ultrasound, experiences are being lived that will implicate the ways in which women relate to their reproductive health. There’s a connection between body sovereignty and black maternal outcomes, and trauma can directly affect a birthing person’s ability to have children and engage with reproductive justice. How a patient is treated when dealing with traumatic experiences across the reproductive health continuum, including stillbirth, miscarriage, abortion, and sexual assault is just as important. It’s about more than keeping Black people alive – it’s about preserving and uplifting the quality of Black life.

History

Kelly pointed out that it is critical to understand how we got to where we are today, from the experimentation on and torture of Black women to the erasure of systems for midwifery to thrive. Midwifery has been systemically under attack for centuries, and only 2% of midwives in this country today are Black (a statistic that no doubt contributes to the Black maternal and infant mortality rates).

Furthermore, structural racism contributes to a lack of access to STEM and proper schooling for Black women, leading to the absence of Black medical professionals and health care providers. And for those Black women who do pursue careers in medicine, Kelly explained that “your medical education taught you that your skin color makes you biologically inferior,” pointing toward a direct thread between what we were taught and what we’re experiencing today when it comes to reproductive inequity.

Beyond the implicit racial bias and racism that persists in gynecological medicine, insurance apartheid keeps people from accessing the best doctors and necessary screenings. This sets the most vulnerable communities up for failure within a system that is supposed to be prioritizing their health and safety.

Organizing

While systems in this country have been intentionaly built against equitable care and support, there are people building so that when the broken system falls, you have somewhere to go that will be better. The panelists asserted that the work is so deeply rooted in solution and in imagination of what’s possible. 

For those doing the work – especially Black women – remember that healing and liberation go hand in hand. The panelists reflected on how they pray and keep walking, fight and rest, and continue to work toward solutions even at a time when their bodies are under attack. Dr. Cooper Owens says that you must do the things that bring you health and joy while you’re doing this work that is so big. Sevonna suggests that you come back to the self as a way of surviving the systems that are trying to make you disassociate from yourself. She reminds, too, that you do not have to think about ritual in a capitalistic way, because “ritual exists in the rhythm of ourselves and in our DNA.” Harriet Tubman was an herbalist, as was Toni Morrison. 

Dr. Cooper Owens reflected on how the burden of stopping systemic racism is falling on the shoulders of Black people –  as if any of this is new. All of a sudden, people want to listen to what Black women created in the 1960s when they introduced the idea of reproductive justice. She urges that those who want to involve themselves in the fight for reproductive justice must first be educated about the beliefs they have around gender and race that are fictions, before turning to the data and science. Even then, you cannot read yourself away out of your biases. It’s a daily practice of slowly unwinding 400 years of oppression and, even still, every day, people are going to get it wrong.

To close, the panelists seemed to be in agreement that, in the fight moving forward, community is vital and stories of Black love and joy must be centered. Here are the words and affirmations they asked us to bring forth into the work:

  • “We make medicine and we find medicine all the time.” – Sevonna Brown
  • “Joy emanates from Black girls in play and leisure.” – Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens
  • “Our stories are the tiles that create the mosaic of our narrative.” – Kimberly Seals Allers
  • “Stories only of pain, devoid of pleasure, only serve to pathologize blackness.” – Kelly Davis

Resources

During the webinar, panelists and attendees alike offered a number of educational and action-driven resources with the data, history, and organization we all need in order to lead the fight for reproductive justice. We encourage you to visit the links below:

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