Science in the Spotlight: “The Roots of the U.S. Black Maternal Mortality Crisis”

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“Half of all medical student respondents did not believe that Black patients felt pain the way Whites did. So did a lot of practicing physicians,” a study published in PNAS reported. If asked when this study was conducted, many might guess sometime in the twentieth century, or earlier.

The actual year was 2016. 

This revelation was just one of the many disturbing findings revealed in “The Roots of the U.S. Black Maternal Mortality Crisis,” a podcast jointly produced by Scientific American and Nature in August. The podcast opens by examining Georgia’s new law that bans abortions after six weeks of conception, before launching into an explanation of its past precedents and future ramifications on pregnant Black women.

Historically, unintended pregnancy rates are higher among Black women compared to White women. Due to income disparities, job insecurity, and overall underinsurance, Black women have less access to long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) and must resort to using condoms, which are a less effective form of contraception. Higher rates of unintended pregnancy, coupled with increased susceptibility to mistreatment during childbirth, contribute to the racial disparity in maternal mortality rates: Black women are three times more likely to die in pregnancy than White women.

The podcast makes a strong effort to show that socioeconomically disadvantaged Black women are not alone in this phenomenon. Serena Williams and Shalon Irving, for instance, are both healthy, educated, affluent women whose obstetrician-gynecologists dismissed their concerns.  

Irving visited her doctor multiple times and reported swelling in her right leg and a weight gain of nine pounds in two weeks. She was ordered to “wait it out” and died in 2017 due to birth-associated complications caused by high blood pressure. Williams, on the other hand, told her doctors that she thought she had a pulmonary embolism. Even though she had experienced one before, her physician ignored her claim, and she nearly died.

Both of these cases could have been avoided if their own doctors had listened to them.

Is there any hope left? Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, more awareness has been raised about this issue than ever before. This increased public attention may not only help lower the Black maternal mortality rate but also help reduce the factors that contribute to the issue, such as implicit racial biases among physicians.

“The Roots of the U.S. Black Maternal Mortality Crisis” integrates interviews with researchers, historians, and family members of women who died from mistreatment, providing a holistic view of the Black maternal mortality crisis. By referencing the complicated, interwoven history of childbirth and slavery, analyzing existing stereotypes, and hypothesizing how ever-changing legislation will affect Black women in the United States, this podcast calls us to question, analyze, and change our existing healthcare system.