Black Mothers Matter – Maternal Deaths In UK and USA
By Samantha Thurlby-Brooks
Unless you’ve been living with your head under the duvet, you’ll know there are currently protests across the USA and UK regarding police brutality in North America. The horrific murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands (or rather, knee) of a white police officer, while other officers looked on, has triggered these protests. There is another effect of racism that goes relatively unspoken throughout the USA and UK, the death of black mothers during childbirth.
These last couple of days I’ve been researching statistics on maternal mortalities (deaths) in the UK and USA by ethnicity. It’s not easy to find actual statistics. Everything seems to be estimated. The NHS don’t publicise the maternal death rates of anyone, let alone by skin colour and heritage. After reading a few articles and finding statistics from various places, I have a slightly clearer picture of how many women are dying.
I say slightly clearer because maternal mortality is defined as deaths in, or shortly after childbirth. If a woman dies after six weeks post birth, she would not be counted as a maternal death, even if she dies of complications that arose from being pregnant or during childbirth.
Black Mothers Matter – UK
Approximately 9 women will die in the UK for every 100,000 births. That’s 0.0088% of all births. I keep reading different numbers in various places. Some say 13.4 women per 100,000 births, some say 4 per 100,000 births.
These statistics don’t show us what’s really going on. The chances of dying in childbirth is greatly affected by the colour of the mother’s skin. Black women are dying at a rate of 32 women per 100,000 births, whereas white women are dying at a rate of 8 per 100,000 births. Black women are 4 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Even these statistics are misleading as they don’t tell you just how many women, exactly, are dying.
Black women make up just 4.35% of all live births in the UK yet they account for approximately 17% of the maternal mortality rate (I can’t find the statistics for mixed race maternal deaths). This means 9 black women died during or shortly after birth in 2018, approximately 0.034% of all black birthing women. If black women died at the same rate as white women, only 2 black women would have died. 7 women’s deaths could have and should have been prevented.
If white women died at the same rate as black women, 132 women would have died. As it is, 33 white women died during or shortly after childbirth, approximately 0.008% of white women giving birth. White women in the UK make up 68% of all live births.
In 2019, the number of black babies born in the UK was 29,525. There were 141 neonatal deaths (baby died before 28 days old). That’s 0.48% of black babies. In the same year, the number of white babies born was 461,535. There were 1,105 neonatal deaths. That’s 0.24% of white babies.
If black babies died at the same rate as white babies, only 71 babies would have died. 70 baby’s deaths could have and should have been prevented.
Black Mothers Matter – USA
In the United State of America the picture is worse overall. In 2017 approximately 17.4 women died in childbirth or shortly after per 100,000 live births. This means 671 birthing women died in the USA in 2017. 40.8 Black women die in childbirth per 100,000 births compared to 12.7 white women per 100,000 births. Black women are 3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
Black women make up 14.54% of all live births in the USA yet they account for approximately 36.4% of the maternal mortality rate (again, I can’t find the statistics for mixed race maternal deaths). This means 229 black women died during or shortly after birth in 2017 in the States, approximately 0.04% of all black birthing women. If black women died at the same rate as white women, only 71 black women would have died. 158 women’s deaths could have and should have been prevented.
If white women died at the same rate as black women, 813 women would have died. As it is, 253 white women died during or shortly after childbirth, approximately 0.01% of all white birthing women. White women in the USA make up 51.68% of all live births.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
You might say that black people have health conditions that white people don’t. Answering this would be a whole other article. I would compare the amount of money spent on finding treatment and cures for black specific health conditions to other health conditions. I haven’t done the research but I would bet, on ratio, black health conditions receive far less money than others.
In terms of birth physiology, there is no reason why black women and babies should die at a higher rate than their white counterparts. None. We have the same organs, hormones and range of pelvic shapes (I’ve read some very unscientific research that says black pelvises are narrower. I would argue that the method and sample size is unreliable… again, I would have to write a whole other article to explain this). The only difference, that I can see, is skin colour, which means this is an issue of racism.
The PRMR [pregnancy related deaths] for black women with at least a college degree was 5.2 times that of their white counterparts.” U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services
In comparison, 0.01% of Asian mothers die during, or shortly after, childbirth in USA and UK.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
Again, it’s not for me to say what black women need or want since I’m not black. From my own perspective, more needs to be done to listen to black women. Listening to black women’s health related experiences before and during pregnancy, birth and in the postnatal period. Listening not just to experiences in the medical system but also in the way health is portrayed in society and the medical community from a black preson’s perspective, how health is taught from a black person’s perspective and how society treats and depicts black people (and any other aspects I’m not aware of as a white woman). Also, listening to black people’s experiences in society and the media generally and how authority and power are experienced. Being open to what black people are saying, without getting defensive, and most importantly, making changes as a result is the only way forward in saving lives and saving families.
Garcia, R., Ali, N., Papadopoulos, C. et al. Specific antenatal interventions for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pregnant women at high risk of poor birth outcomes in the United Kingdom: a scoping review. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 15, 226 (2015). https://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-015-0657-2