Racism Is Deteriorating The Health of Pregnant People of Color and Their Babies
On February 12th, Beyonce gifted the world with a performance dedicated to Black self-identified women, and even more specifically, Black pregnant people. The positive responses to her ode on motherhood seemed to have overshadowed the trolls, but I could not help but wonder, are many truly oblivious of the realities pregnant people of color face in the U.S.? Unfortunately, yes, they are, but with this being the age of information, our communities are creating a buffer to the daily discrimination faced by pregnant people of color.
The traditional standard of healthcare is race-based medicine in order to cut corners, therefore the outcomes for minorities (really the global majority, if we’re being technical) tend to be negative.
Healthcare is composed of three factors: access, quality, and outcomes, and the disparities to all these can be determined by looking at a person’s race, meaning marginalized pregnant people will have a completely different experience than their white counterparts.
In Austin, Texas, 80.9% of white pregnant people receive prenatal care in the first trimester, whereas the percentages are significantly lower for Black and Latinx pregnant people. According to a Community Health Assessment produced by Austin/Travis County, Texas, in December 2012, only 59% of Black pregnant people and 46.7% of Latinx pregnant people receive prenatal care.
Many will assume that the causes for these statistics are lack of healthcare access and poverty, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
The World Health Organization released a report on November 2012 stating that there are several social determinants responsible for health inequities, which go beyond lack of access and poverty. They include: race/ethnicity, language, social support networks, gender, transportation, education, housing/physical environment, employment/working conditions, socioeconomic status, and health/social services.
Harvard Professor, Dr. Davis Williams states, “Marginalized groups experience more discrimination therefore more impacts on their health.” This impact is a result of the stress caused by bigotry—fighting against sterilization coercion, stereotypes, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy—and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this is detrimental for a pregnant person. This is the difference between reproductive rights and the reproductive justice movement led by women and trans-women of color.
Here’s a breakdown on how stress works: when an individual is going through a taxing situation, the nervous system releases an overflow of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in order to respond immediately if there’s a threat. This basic body-mind mechanism is normal, but too much of anything can be harmful, including a surplus of this natural response.
When a pregnant person experiences stress frequently, the fetus and individual will be affected whether it’s going into labor early (the fight-or-flight response sends a message throughout the body that the womb is no longer a safe place for the fetus), experiencing high blood pressure, and giving birth to a premature or stillborn baby.
The CDC reported that immigrants are healthier before moving to the U.S., and once they’re here, their health deteriorates. Stress is the killing factor, and solidarity is the solution.
Many organizations composed of midwives and doulas have demonstrated that being supportive as possible to pregnant people has been what takes them to term and helps them deliver healthy babies. That support creates a buffer to the stress of discrimination they face everyday.
In Austin, Texas, we have a community organization called Mama Sana Vibrant Woman that works to facilitate access to culturally appropriate and quality, prenatal and postnatal care for women of color in Austin/Travis County.
“Our goals are to improve birth outcomes for Black and Latina mothers and pregnant people,” states Birth Support Program Director, Rachel Caballero. “We are working towards a just and loving world where all mothers receive, attentive, quality, loving care, and where all communities have equitable resources to care for their children,” she says.
MSVW is moving forward with steam. In only their first year of funding, they have led 59 prenatal sessions, launched their first birth companion (doula) training, introduced two childbirth prep classes, and gifted pregnant people with two Mama Spa Days!
“Institutional barriers, including systematic racism, result in experiences of social isolation and negative health outcomes among African-American and Latina mothers and infants,” concludes Caballero.
If we can create an environment of unconditional love, fierce attentiveness, and care, we can counterbalance the allostatic load pregnant people of color face. A little bit of unconditional support and organic love can go a long way.