On June 13th, 2023, an autopsy report elucidated the circumstances surrounding the death of sprinter and three-time Olympic medalist Frentorish “Tori” Bowie. According to the report, Bowie had a “well developed fetus” and was crowning at the time of her death. Additionally, the report names respiratory distress and eclampsia, which is marked by the nascent onset of seizures or coma in a pregnant person with preeclampsia, as potential complications that led to Bowie’s passing.
The conditions surrounding Bowie’s death are a cocktail of all that plagues Black birthing people in the United States. In America, Black birthing people experience preeclampsia and eclampsia, which are among the leading causes of maternal deaths globally, at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts. What’s worse, this mirrors current disparities in maternal mortality in the United States overall—Black birthing people are three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications, and this gap is only widening.
An equally noxious component of this cocktail lies within the reactions to growing information about the circumstances surrounding Bowie’s tragic death. As conversations about maternal mortality and Black birthing people enter the public sphere again, we must grapple with our pernicious propensity for subscribing to notions of blame. Unfortunately, what this reveals is that Black women are not commonly extended grace—even in our passing.
In an article that aims to teach readers about the condition, a reporter quotes a medical professional’s assertion that preeclampsia “is not a death sentence”. They go on to claim that the problem with the story is that Bowie was not in the hospital.
The underlying assumption here is that, in a nation where many Black birthing people interface with health professionals that do not take their concerns seriously, going to the hospital would have made a difference. The assumption is that, in a nation where Black birthing people commonly die preventable deaths under the care of health professionals, the most glaring part of Bowie’s experience is the absence of a health professional at the time of death. For Black women, hospital settings where care is optimal and our voices are honored are an anomaly, and yet, these analyses treat them as the norm. According to her agent, Bowie was among the great number of Black people who did not trust hospitals.
Several other outlets took to their platforms in a well-meaning effort to highlight the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. Unfortunately, even these pieces miss the mark in the attempt to highlight the perils of pregnancy and childbirth for Black people in the United States. The assertion that preeclampsia is not a medical emergency, while comforting to those who wish to take preventive and/or protective measures, can be a dangerous one. Early detection and regular prenatal checks do not protect Black birthing people against a medical system where, like many spheres, implicit bias is ever-present. Informational articles about preeclampsia will not save Black women in a world and a system that often disregards their voices about their own embodied experiences.
For Black birthing people, preeclampsia can be a death sentence—because of structural racism first and foremost, weathering and a host of other reasons that we have yet to illuminate because of the lack of research that hones in on Black women’s health specifically. It is a death sentence because the ultimate catalyst of the curing process—a safe, dignified birthing experience—is treated as a luxury, and not a baseline for Black women and birthing people.
Bowie’s death is a reminder that physical fitness, wealth, and status do not insulate Black birthing people from maternal death. As we work to mourn her and honor her legacy, we should unpack the biases that create crevices for notions of blame to slip within our well-meaning efforts to illuminate the harsh realities of the United States’ maternal health landscape. The most important dialogue is not the one about what Bowie could or should have done. It is about what ostensible systems of support could have done, and can do moving forward to ensure the safety of Black birthing people in the United States, and the world at large.