For many of us, Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate moms and families by offering expressions of love and appreciation. But every year in the United States, approximately 700 women die from pregnancy-related complications, the majority of which are preventable. And every year, over 22,000 infants never make it to their first birthday. These tragedies don’t strike every community equally. Across the country, African American moms from all walks of life are dying at three to four times the rate of white moms, and their infants are dying at double the rate of babies born to white women. For far too many black families, Mother’s Day is a time to grieve a senseless, preventable, and incalculable loss.
Research suggests that the impact of racism and sexism takes a toll on women’s bodies over time, affecting their mental health and making them more vulnerable to complications, like high blood pressure and preterm labor, that put their lives and the lives of their infants in danger. This means that black women across all income and education levels are much more susceptible to maternal and infant mortality than white women simply because they have lived with racism’s burden. In fact, African American women with advanced degrees have higher infant mortality rates than non-Hispanic white women who never finished high school.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Center for American Progress has recently put out a comprehensive report that outlines policies to eliminate racial disparities in both maternal and infant mortality. Recognizing that maternal and infant health go hand-in-hand, our report outlines policy strategies in five areas that can help mothers and infants:
- Improve access to critical services. We’ve come a long way in increasing health coverage through programs like the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but we need to do more. In addition to protecting and strengthening existing programs against harmful restrictions, policymakers must ensure all women have access to high quality maternity care, no matter where they live, and connect women to treatment if they are at risk for preterm births. Policymakers must also support access to comprehensive reproductive health care, and provide tools to help families navigate health settings, like access to midwives or doulas.
- Improve the quality of care provided to pregnant women. Policymakers must also improve the quality of care families receive by addressing racism in health care. We can achieve this by investing in training and recruiting a diverse and compassionate workforce, developing evidence-based guidelines for assessment and care, and adopting new care models that link payment to quality and improve families’ experience.
- Address maternal and infant mental health. Too often, maternal and infant mental health problems among women and infants of color go unrecognized or unaddressed, leading to disastrous consequences. Policymakers must identify barriers to accessing maternal mental health services, eliminate barriers like high out-of-pocket costs, and address infant and early childhood mental health issues.
- Enhance supports for families before and after birth. We all know families need support to thrive, but adjusting to parenthood can be especially hard for families experiencing economic insecurity. Because of structural racism, too many of these families are families of color. Policymakers must increase funding to programs that help families meet their basic needs—including nutrition and housing assistance—and make it easier for families to get these services by making it easier to enroll in programs and bringing services directly to families through home visiting.
- Improve data collection and oversight. Collecting and disseminating reliable, consistent data on maternal and infant mortality is critical to developing solutions. But U.S. data on some of these topics are not reliable; in fact, the United States has not published an official maternal mortality rate since 2007. To address these problems, federal policy makers need to help states collect better quality data on maternal and infant mortality in order to prevent future deaths, and support equity in the data collection and review processes.
Mother’s Day should be a time to celebrate and reflect on the joys of parenthood. Unfortunately, too many black families have to experience this momentous occasion grieving a lost loved one. For the U.S. to turn the tide on maternal and infant mortality, we must take a hard look at the role of racism in driving poor health outcomes for African Americans, and root it out. Only then can we break down the structural barriers that perpetuate discrimination and unequal treatment within the health care system and broader American society. The Center for American Progress has a comprehensive plan to do just that.