Credit: (source: blackmamasmatter.org)

Last Updated on April 15, 2022 by BVN

Breanna Reeves |

Black Maternal Health Week spans from April 11-17. The annual campaign started five years ago by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) to promote awareness and foster action surrounding the state of Black maternal health in the U.S. This year’s theme is “Building for Liberation: Centering Black Mamas, Black Families and Black Systems of Care.”

In recognizing this week, the intended goal is to deepen the conversation about Black maternal health, amplify policy and research and center the voices of Black mothers, women and families, according to BMMA. 

The White House officially recognized Black Maternal Health week last year on ​​April 13, 2021. In his proclamation, President Biden called on Americans to “raise awareness of the state of Black maternal health in the United States by understanding the consequences of systemic discrimination, recognizing the scope of this problem and the need for urgent solutions…”

The public should know and recognize the importance of dignified perinatal care, according to Stephanie Bryant, Program Chief of the Maternal Child Adolescent Program at Riverside University Health System– Public Health and director of Riverside County’s Black Infant Health Program. 

Black Maternal Health Week was started five years ago by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) to promote awareness and foster action surrounding the state of Black maternal health in the U.S.  (source: blackmamasmatter.org)

“We want all of our babies to be born healthy. We want all of our babies to have a chance at life and we want all of our moms to have the same equitable access to resources and services so they can have the best outcomes,” Bryant explained.

According to Bryant the question often becomes why are we focusing on a particular population. “But, at the end of the day, when we sometimes provide resources and services to the most vulnerable group, when it’s quality services, it translates into improving practices for everyone.”

What is maternal mortality?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines maternal mortality (pregnancy-related death) as the “death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy.” 

In the U.S. maternal mortality impacts Black pregnant women/ birthing people at a disparate rate, with Black mothers nearly four times more likely than white mothers to die from pregnancy-related causes, according to the California Department of Public Health. Black women also are at 1.7 times higher risk of having a preterm birth compared to white women.

California has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the country, but Black mothers still have a higher maternal mortality rate compared to other racial groups. According to a 2021 California Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System (CA-PMSS) report, from 2014-2016, pregnancy-related deaths for Black women was 56.2 deaths per 100,000 births, four-to-six times greater than the maternal mortality rate of other racial groups.

During the pandemic, many cities across California, like Riverside, declared racism a public health crisis. In addition to increased racial tension due to police violence, disparities regarding the rate at which COVID-19 and other health-related outcomes impacted Black communities and communities of color became glaringly apparent.

I think one thing that COVID did was really elevate and bring greater attention and awareness to the fact that health disparities in the Black community, and other communities of color, do exist. So, if there’s anything good that came out of COVID, that is it,” said Rhonda Smith, director of the California Black Health Network, a Black-led, statewide organization dedicated to advancing health equity for Black Californians. 

Smith explained that the significance of Black Maternal Health week is to bring greater attention and awareness to the crisis of Black maternal mortality. With more focus on addressing this issue, Smith believes this could result in a shift that could lead to telling a different story about what’s happening to Black moms further down the road.

What do we know about what contributes to maternal mortality?

Black mothers are nearly four times more likely than white mothers to die from pregnancy-related causes. (source: cdc.gov)

The CDC notes that there are several factors that contribute to disparities in maternal health outcomes such as inequitable treatment in healthcare, structural racism, underlying chronic conditions, implicit bias and social determinants of health.

“When you look across entire demographics, and some populations within the Black community, and especially in underserved communities, access to health and prenatal care becomes an issue. And when we talk about access, it’s not just access, but also the quality of that care,” Smith said. Like many Black women, Smith is no stranger to hearing devastating experiences about Black mothers who were denied treatment, ignored and disregarded by healthcare professionals.

The term implicit bias is used to describe unconscious attitudes toward certain people or assign stereotypes to them. Implicit bias is not the only contributing factor, but it has a considerable role in maternal mortality as it impacts Black women and women of color. In a recent podcast produced as part of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services’ theServiceStation series, Bryant spoke about the way in which implicit bias shows up in healthcare systems and the importance of addressing those biases in order to deliver equitable care. 

Bryant stressed the importance of healthcare professionals needing to, “think about their biases, and how such biases have played a role in the maternal health outcomes that women — especially Black women — have experienced.” 

When a healthcare professional has a preconceived impression of an individual, especially if it is negative, she continued, it can influence the type of care provided which may differ from the care being provided to a different group. “This is something that we’ve seen across the country as a problem,” Bryant asserted.

The public should know and recognize the importance of dignified perinatal care, said Stephanie Bryant, Program Chief of the Maternal Child Adolescent Program at Riverside University Health System– Public Health and director of Riverside County’s Black Infant Health Program. (rivcoph.org)

What’s being done to address this issue?

In recent years, reproductive and birth equity advocates have pushed for policy changes that could improve the state of maternal mortality in California. 

In 2021, California passed the Momnibus Act (SB 65), which was co-sponsored by the Black Women for Wellness Action Project. The bill aims to expand services for moms-to-be and pregnant people such as extending Medi-Cal to cover maternal health care for 12 months postpartum and granting eligible people earlier access to CalWORKs.

“I think in California we’ve been fortunate. Although we still suffer and see a great gap and disparities, I think there has been some forward movement on the policy and legislative front to really address this issue in the Black community, like SB 464 (California Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act),” said Smith.

The implementation of local programs that support Black pregnant women and birthing people during their pregnancy and postpartum have also been beneficial to providing communities with support, education regarding their mental health, and teaching them how to advocate on behalf of themselves.

In Riverside County, Riverside University Health System – Public Health’s Black Infant Health program utilizes a group-based intervention model which allows women to come together in a series of group sessions throughout their pregnancies and after. The sessions cover a wide-range of topics to help mothers/birthing people including stress management, family planning, labor and delivery and preterm birth awareness.

“It’s vital that we work together as a community to protect the health of Black women and mothers this week and every week,” said Bryant in a press release during Black Maternal Health Week. “We can do this by reducing health disparities that exist for Black mothers through support, services and resources.”

Riverside University Health System – Public Health’s Black Infant Health program utilizes a group-based intervention model which allows women to come together in a series of group sessions throughout their pregnancies and after.  (rivcophn.org)

The Black Infant Program has been around for about 30 years now, created by the California Department of Public Health to address the high rate of Black infant mortality. The Riverside program serves Black women in the county who are at least 16 years of age or older and pregnant or those who have a baby up to six months old. 

Bryant explained that while local programs exist such as the Black Infant Health program in Riverside County, these programs are voluntary and not all women participate in them. While these programs offer a range of supportive services like access to public health nurses and medical social worker support, singular programs alone will not solve the crisis of Black maternal mortality because not all Black women receive Black infant health services or know it exists. 

The issue of maternal mortality and Black maternal mortality is a longstanding issue and changes are needed at every level to combat the matter, according to Bryant.

To learn more from Stephanie Bryant, Director of Riverside County’s Black Infant Health Program, on this important topic listen to the most recent episode of theServiceStation, where she discusses the impact of systemic racism on Black newborns and mothers and how Riverside County partners and professionals are working together to improve health outcomes, including through the county’s Black Infant Health Program.

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.