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Addressing crisis in Black maternal health


Answers lie in eliminating ‘healthcare deserts’

Black Women for Wellness (BWW) recently held its annual reproductive justice conference, “Healing from Our Past, Protecting Our Present and Preparing for Our Future.” and it offered a few solutions to some of the sad birth statistics heard lately.

“What we need are more midwives and doulas out there,” said Dr. B.K. Edmond, co-author of “The Quiltmakers,” a fictional short story which articulates Black maternal mortality and offers a historical perspective of “granny midwives” and folk medicine that could help decrease adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Edmond, who has been on staff at Johns Hopkins Anesthesia and Critical Care since 2009, also suggested that Black communities need to work on eliminating “healthcare deserts,” where women cannot find adequate prenatal, birth or postnatal care.

The protagonist of Edmond’s story is a Black anesthesiologist in Atlanta, who is disturbed by the disparity in Black/White maternal mortality and seeks to find solutions.

A number of BWW speakers focused on African-American maternal statistics in America, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 31% of pregnancy-related deaths in this country between 2013 and 2019 were of Black women.

Cardiac and coronary conditions were the leading underlying causes of those pregnancy-related deaths.

Speakers and exhibitors also reminded participants of Dr. J. Marion Sims’ 1906 experimental surgeries on enslaved women; the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose genes have been used for decades, without her permission, in the treatment of cancer; and the ongoing efforts by advocacy groups.

“We must be about planting the seeds to create a future that we want,” said BWW CEO Dr. Jannette Robinson-Flint. “Black women and girls have the fundamental right to bodily autonomy. Each woman, irrespective of her circumstances, deserves respectful and comprehensive reproductive healthcare.”

Reproductive rights, Robinson-Flint explained, include the right to one’s reproductive health, treatment and education. BWW is about creating the vehicles for women to exercise their reproductive rights.

Reproductive justice is different.

“Justice means that not only do you have a right to your health, but that you own your body. That you get to make decisions about your body,” Robinson-Flint said. “That you get the information and the resources that you need to make that decision. And it’s not coerced, it’s something you want to do.”

“Justice also includes the right to have children, the right to not have children, the right to raise your own children and the right to enjoy your body,” she said.

As reported in OW’s Aug. 17 issue, California regulators fined Inglewood’s Centinela Hospital Medical Center $75,000 after faulting the hospital for “deficient practices” that led to a patient dying while admitted there for labor and delivery.

According to a public notice released by Centinela, it will close its Maternal Child Health Services on Oct. 25, 2023. The closure will include the elimination of obstetrics, Labor and Delivery, Newborn Nursery, and its Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

The hospital has stated that inpatient capacity will be added to serve community needs.

“To remove healthcare service is, I think, unreasonable,” said Robinson-Flint. “Centinela Hospital closing [the maternity ward] is an audacious move that will not benefit Inglewood or its surrounding communities. It will create a healthcare desert.”

The closest hospital to Centinela is Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.

“They say it’s nine miles,” Robinson-Flint said, noting the mileage is substantial for those without transportation in Los Angeles. “That could be four buses or three buses. Or there could be a traffic jam.”

Robinson-Flint said the community suffered a significant impact when Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center closed in 2007. It reopened as a community hospital in 2015.

“We’ve seen it in recent history,” she said. “We had a hospital that had a NICU and maternity services. It closed and it did not come back fully.  Now they want to close another maternity ward. What does that mean? What does that mean?”

BWW is planning to have conversations with the unions which have contracts with Centinela Hospital. Robinson-Flint wants the state attorney general and governor to be involved in the talks.

“For me, those are the actions we need to take,” she said. “Engaging the people who work at the hospital and the businesses surrounding the hospital. We are on a fast track to make that happen.”

Another solution to the Black maternal mortality problem on a national scale is to take the profit out of healthcare, said Robinson-Flint.

“If Canada, England and France figured it out, why can’t the United States figure it out?” she said. “The U.S. figured out medicaid.”