The Real Danger in Black Communities: Maternal and Infant Mortality

If the Radiance Foundation is truly concerned about black children, then it should focus on eliminating the undeniable dangers of maternal and infant mortality in the black community.

For the last month, there has been increasing national coverage of the controversial and offensive billboards dispersed throughout Atlanta’s black communities asserting “black children are an endangered species.” The Radiance Foundation proudly sponsored this message out of its purported concern over high rates of abortion and “genocide” in black communities. In interviews, they recycle propaganda highlighting Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood’s eugenicist history, fueling conspiracy theories of plots to eliminate black people, even though only four of the 15 abortion providers in Georgia are in predominantly Black neighborhoods. They neglect to mention that Planned Parenthood provides healthcare services to women and families who would otherwise not receive any healthcare including physical exams, diabetes screenings, and flu shots, in addition to sexual health services.

If the Radiance Foundation is truly concerned about black children, then they should be focused on eliminating the undeniable dangers of maternal and infant mortality. According to Amnesty International’s newly released report on maternal mortality, among high risk pregnancies, African-American women are 5.6 times more likely to die than white women. The United States Office of Minority Health found that African-American infants were almost four times as likely to die from causes related to low birth weight, compared to non-Hispanic white infants. The Georgia Department of Public Health reports that Georgia’s pregnancy-associated mortality rate is sixth highest in the U.S. and that black women are 3.7 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women. These numbers are just as stark as the number of black women having abortions. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to the black community to support the women who are having babies?

One way to improve outcomes of black mothers and children is to ensure proper pre-natal care and pregnancy support. African American mothers were 2.5 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the third trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all. Amnesty International asserts that women of color are less likely to have access to adequate maternal health care services and more likely to experience discriminatory and inappropriate treatment and poorer quality of care.

Shafia Monroe, the founder of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, is a midwife and birth activist of 25 years who asserts that midwives can reduce maternal and infant mortality in black communities. She points to a 1998 study by the Centers for Disease Control in which nurse midwives had a 19 percent lower risk of infant death than physicians, even among higher risk populations such as African Americans, American Indians and teens. Although the study compared vaginal, low-risk births delivered by nurse midwives and physicians, providing evidence that midwives are part of the solution. In her training of birth assistants around the country, she emphasizes the disparate rates of maternal and infant mortality in communities of color, and discusses how to work with expectant mothers on their overall health, particularly nutrition counseling and stress relief. These statistics highlight the need for holistic and culturally sensitive health care models to reduce growing disparities.

Creating ads that describe black people as an endangered species is no different from promoting eugenicist beliefs about population control. It’s looking at women from a merely biological standpoint, as vehicles for reproduction. It equates black women with animals rather than humans. This campaign has exploited the painful history of black womens’ bodies, when we were used during slavery to birth the country’s workforce under inhumane conditions. The creator of these campaigns insists he has spent most of his adult life working to improve conditions in the black community. Since high rates of maternal and infant mortality are a reality for black women and children, why not work for affordable pre- and post-natal care? Or for increased access and affordability of high quality foods in urban neighborhoods? Or for parenting programs for expecting and new mothers? Addressing these issues can give babies a healthy start in utero while assisting mothers in having healthy pregnancies.

It is seductive to believe in vast conspiracy theories because American history is steeped in reproductive control from slavery to the eugenics movement to contraceptive testing in communities of color, at home and abroad. Various racial and ethnic groups have been targeted, Mexican women in California, women across Puerto Rico, Mediterranean and Eastern European immigrants, black women in Louisiana, and it continues. Reproductive control is a reality, and thus is the need for real reproductive justice. Eliminating Planned Parenthood will not end abortion and will not help black women’s health. Allowing women access to all reproductive options–most critically effective contraceptive information and supplies–can reduce abortion rates. Ensuring women have unfettered access to testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, breast and cervical check-ups, well-woman care, and other forms of care provided by Planned Parenthood will improve the health of Black women and in turn their families. Increasing access to midwives and can help reduce maternal and infant mortality. Advocating for affordable pre-natal health care can benefit mothers and their babies. Addressing high rates of violence–including sexual violence and coercion–will vastly improve both health and the quality of life, and reduce mortality. Putting in place effective programs to address poverty and social isolation will create immeasurable synergies in all of these areas.

Instead of plastering incendiary rhetoric on public highways, let’s focus on taking concrete steps towards supporting our mothers and mothers-to-be as means of ensuring strong and healthy communities of color for future generations.