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Civil Rights Investigation of Cedars-Sinai Hospital Signals Hope for Black Mothers

bintou Diarra, A.B | Medical Anthropology, Brown University | July 13, 2023

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that Cedars-Sinai is facing a civil rights investigation over the hospital’s mishandling of Black birthing people. This comes nearly seven years after the death of Kira Dixon Johnson, who passed away after her family’s request for care went ignored for hours by hospital staff.

The news that the two would be welcoming a second son in April of 2016 left Johnson, in his own words, over the moon. Charles and Kira relocated to Los Angeles, and sought out Cedars-Sinai, what Johnson named a “shiny” hospital in Beverly Hills, to ensure optimal care. It had a stellar reputation—it was named one of the best hospitals in the United States, and was known for excelling at caring for the most medically complex patients across various specialties. The hospital’s treatment of Kira Johnson during her vulnerable time, however, did not speak to a quality standard of care. 

On April 12th, 2016, at their doctor’s recommendation, Kira and Charles went into Cedars-Sinai for a routine scheduled C-section, and for what was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a procedure for a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy ended in life-altering tragedy. Their son, Langston, was born healthy—but, after over ten hours of hemorrhaging, Kira passed away. 

Equally devastated and confused, Johnson’s advocacy work started with his grieving process. With Johnson’s bereavement process came the illumination of the sacred and comforting nature of storytelling. Unfortunately, the stories spoke to a maternal health landscape that brought more fear and tragedy than comfort. Johnson heard stories of mothers like Kira, who made the ultimate sacrifice while giving the gift of life. 

Initially, he deemed these stories to be comfort measures—attempts at supporting him during an incredibly difficult time. As he began to hear more and more stories, however, he realized that the birthing experience of many mothers around the world mirrored that of Kira’s. This galvanized Johnson. He filed lawsuits against the hospital over the death of Kira, and the needless suffering of many Black birthing people. In 2017, Johnson sued Cedars-Sinai and the doctor responsible for overseeing Kira’s care in state court. 

This was only the beginning. Last year, Johnson filed a civil rights lawsuit against the hospital with the goal of acknowledging the root of the issue. The lawsuit underscored the disheartening reality that implicit bias against Kira’s race ultimately decided her fate, which Cedars-Sinai denied in a statement. 

Despite the denial, this is a particularly auspicious moment to draw attention to the pernicious effects of racism within the hospital setting. A new comparative United Nations analysis that examines the maternal health of Afrodescendant birthing people concludes that systemic racism and sexism governs pregnancy and childbirth related outcomes for Black birthing people within the hospital setting, and not genetics or lifestyle choices.

Thus, the lawsuit is far bigger than the devastating events of April 12th, 2016. In a nation where Black birthing people are dying of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications at three times the rate of their white counterparts, allegations of racism and discrimination must be given great weight in our evaluation of hospital systems. Kira Dixon Johnson’s story is not an isolated incident. It mirrors the experiences of many Black birthing people, making current conditions a human rights crisis that can no longer go ignored. The lawsuit is one step of many that we must take to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are a time of great joy, rather than tragedy, for Black birthing people in the United States. 

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