Ebonie Karma Tudor, a Black woman, recently shared her traumatic birth experience from 2007 when she almost died giving birth to her son. Tudor required two blood transfusions and was unable to see her newborn immediately after delivery. Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon, as studies indicate that the most critical period for maternal deaths occurs after mother and baby return home, rather than during labor and delivery itself.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 53% of pregnancy-related deaths happen within the first week after childbirth to one year postpartum. Among non-Hispanic Black individuals, cardiac and coronary conditions are listed as the primary underlying causes of pregnancy-related deaths. Surprisingly, wealth does not significantly impact the survival rates of Black families. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that while wealthier mothers have higher chances of surviving the first year after childbirth, this trend does not hold true for Black women.
Tudor’s own challenging experience inspired her to become a doula, offering physical, educational, and emotional support to clients before, during, and after childbirth. For Black mothers, having such advocacy can be a matter of life and death. The recent death of Olympic athlete Tori Bowie has once again brought attention to the issues surrounding Black maternal healthcare in the United States. Bowie passed away from complications related to childbirth, including respiratory distress and eclampsia.
While there has been a decline in in-hospital maternal deaths across the United States, a study published in JAMA Network Open highlights that this decrease does not reflect the nation’s overall maternal mortality rate, which has been rising. Black maternal death rates have been steadily increasing for decades, with Black mothers nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared to White women. The racial disparities in maternal health outcomes are influenced by factors such as underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias.
The CDC also found that Black babies face a higher risk of mortality compared to other racial or ethnic groups, and they are more likely to be born prematurely, leading to potential health issues throughout their lives. To address these disparities, Tudor and other doulas from organizations like Mama Glow, a global maternal health and education platform, work to provide support and raise awareness. Mama Glow, in collaboration with Carol’s Daughter, launched the “Love Delivered” initiative, offering doula training and grants to improve access to doula services for Black families.
Hiring a doula can be cost-prohibitive for many, and this financial barrier often affects Black mothers disproportionately. However, research suggests that having a doula during childbirth and the postpartum period can have significant benefits for both mother and baby, including reduced rates of low-birth-weight babies, fewer birth complications, and increased breastfeeding initiation.
Despite the challenges, doulas like Zania Mathis are committed to supporting Black mothers, even making exceptions for clients who need their care by offering payment plans or exchanging services. The work of doulas and initiatives like “Love Delivered” aims to address the alarming maternal mortality rates among Black women, improve the healthcare experiences of Black mothers, and build a future where birth is safe and equitable for all.