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Valuing Black Women’s and Infants’ Lives in the US

US Maternal Death Rates Are Rising, With Black Women at Greatest Risk

The maternity ward is show at the newly constructed Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center hospital in San Diego, California , U.S., April 17, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Around the world every single day 800 women and girls die from preventable causes during and after pregnancy. Human Rights Watch has documented some of the root causes of these deathslack of accountability of health professionals to poor quality care to considerable cost barriers to care.

In many countries, this number is dropping. But in the United States – one of the world’s richest countries – it’s rising. Many people would be shocked to learn that at least two women and girls die from pregnancy-related causes each day here. Shamefully, Black women are more than three times as likely to die than white women.

Any pregnancy involves risk – including the woman losing her life. But most pregnant women and their families in the US feel they can rely on the health system.

For Black women, this trust can be hard to muster. Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants – a disparity the New York Times tells us is greater than in 1850, 15 years before slavery ended.

What is surprising is how little we know about each of these deaths. The United States uses no consistent means to determine what went wrong. Accountability is essential when it comes to your right to the highest attainable standard of health. It entails addressing past grievances, monitoring progress, correcting failures in the healthcare system. It also should reduce disparities when it comes to people accessing health care. But all this starts with answering the simple question, “what went wrong?”

The US Centers for Disease Control is working to support this type of review in states. This is an important first step, even if more work needs to be done.

After knowing what went wrong, the next question to ask is, “what are the solutions?” The Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a Black-women led group that seeks to advance policy grounded in a human rights framework, just launched the inaugural national Black Maternal Health Week. There are many steps needed to end preventable maternal deaths in the US, but this week is an opportunity for local, state, and federal government officials – as well as all stakeholders – to reflect on what a participatory, rights-grounded approach to valuing and saving the lives of Black women and their infants should look like.    

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