It is not uncommon for black mothers and babies to be treated poorly, or to even have racial slurs thrown at them during their medical care. Essence Walters is a doula who was motivated to do this work when her niece was called an “AIDS baby.” Her niece however, does not have AIDS. While Essence helped her sister, who is an HIV-positive black woman, navigate the maternity care system, she saw the racial disparities and experienced things that impacted her deeply. This motivated her to want to make a difference in the lives of all pregnant people. She chose to become a doula.
Health Equity Week and Black Maternal Health weeks are recognized during the first two weeks of April — National Minority Health Month. Health Equity Week was created to bring awareness to, and start conversations about disparities in health care in an effort to create solutions to these problems. Black Maternal Heath Week is designated to bring awareness and attention to the issues of the Black maternal health crisis, to advocate for the success and survival of black mothers, and to push for research and solutions to the problems that black mothers face.
Racial disparities and inequities in health care lead to pregnancy related deaths of black women at four times the rate of white women. These outcomes are not eradicated based on a black woman’s income, education, age, or marital status. This maternal health crisis is due to many compounding factors and social determinants of health, which are societal and systemic issues, all rooted in implicit bias and overt racism. These issues and systems all have a huge impact on a woman’s pregnancy-related health and birth outcomes. The well-being of a black mother ultimately affects the entire trajectory of her children and family’s health, as well as the overall community.
Both Health Equity Week and Black Maternal Health Week give community members, medical providers, policy makers, and advocates an opportunity to discuss and advance solutions to this crisis that disproportionately affects black mothers. It gives us all an opportunity to look at the ways in which we are centering and elevating the voices of black mothers in finding solutions to the problems they face and how to best address them.
It is important for those of us who work directly with, and for the interests of black mothers, to keep them safe and supported by working to address all of their needs, which could include any societal issue from helping them to secure appropriate food, housing or employment, to assisting them in recognizing and addressing institutional bias and inequities in their health care. It could also include helping them advocate for themselves appropriately and effectively in order to get the care they deserve.
These weeks also allow black mothers to share their success stories, tools and mechanisms they use to stay healthy, and tips on how to navigate difficult experiences and situations for their mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Sacure Joshua had already lost a previous pregnancy and was experiencing extreme neglect from her medical provider. Her provider ignored her concerns about the physical symptoms she was having. Sacure was empowered enough though to change providers. Her new provider discovered that she had a condition that could have put her pregnancy at risk and was most likely the cause of her previous loss. Her mother suggested that she get a doula to support her through the process. With the support of her family, her new medical provider, and doula, she not only has a beautiful baby girl, but she has also decided to become a doula herself. Her goal is to ensure that black women are given the attention and support they deserve.
Although black mothers are more likely to face systemic barriers, the narrative during this time is not always about black mothers dying, but can also be about black mothers surviving and thriving within complex medical systems and their communities.
The problems that affect black mothers affect us all. Together, we all can make a difference.
Increasing access to racially concordant doulas should be leveraged to ensure that black women have appropriate peer support — something that has been shown to result in better birth outcomes.
The Earth’s Natural Touch: Birth Care & Beyond doulas and perinatal health advocates work to reduce the risk of undesirable pregnancy and birth outcomes, promote perinatal wellness for parents and children, and encourage breastfeeding advocacy for all families, while also working to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in infant and maternal health within undervalued and underrepresented communities.
SciHonor Devotion is founder of Earth’s Natural Touch: Birth Care & Beyond and is an interdisciplinary doula based in Bridgeport. She is also a member of the Connecticut Doula Care Coverage Task Force, created by the Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity.