When my husband and I learned that we were going to be parents, we were filled with many of the same joys and anxieties that most soon-to-be parents have, from wondering about how to create a great birth plan to which baby products we should buy (every cute onesie we saw was deemed necessary). As a Jewish family, we thought about what a brit or baby naming ceremony for our son might be like. In addition, we wondered how the actual birth would go.
We had heard some devastating statistics about the maternal mortality rate in the United States; in 2019 (the year I gave birth), the U.S. maternal mortality rate was 20.1 per 100,000 live births – a ratio more than double the amount of most other high-income countries. Looking more deeply into the numbers, statistics were even more grim for Black mothers: 2.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people. The numbers have only worsened since then: Black women in the United States die from pregnancy-related causes at three to four times the rate of white women, regardless of education, income, or other socioeconomic factors.
The elevated mortality rate for Black mothers reflects a consistent discrepancy in how Black people are treated by the health care system, from obstetrics to medical care for general concerns. Recent COVID-19 mortality statistics have shed light on how the pandemic has also disproportionately affected Black Americans and the CDC recently made a statement describing racism as a public health threat.
Learning about inequities in care and understanding that Black parents have a greater degree of maternal and infant mortality rates led my husband and I to make decisions that we hoped would give us a better chance for a safe birth, even though we still had no guarantees. We vetted our obstetrician thoroughly before making the decision to have her deliver our son. We also decided to hire a doula after reading an article about maternal mortality that mentioned doulas can help advocate for patients during the birthing process. We felt we needed as many advocates as we could get.
In the end, I went into labor early and the obstetrician we had vetted so thoroughly was not the person who delivered our son. I also went from wanting to breathe my way through birth to calling for the anesthesiologist to give me an epidural in the last few hours of labor. The birth plan changed, but in the end, our son was healthy and wonderful, and I recovered well. Nineteen months later, much of my time is spent repeating a constant litany of some form of the phrase, “What is that? Don’t eat that!”, making sure he doesn’t pull toilet paper all over the bathroom, and, of course, getting some serious snuggles.
Bringing life into the world is an honor and is a sacred Jewish value. Childbirth should be made as safe as possible for everyone.
I sometimes think about all the many, many things I worried about while pregnant, some of them serious, and some that I now regard as silly, including exactly how big a newborn’s head would be. One thing no person should ever have to worry about is whether systemic racism will prevent them from receiving the care they need during pregnancy and childbirth. Everyone deserves safety in childbirth. Everyone deserves to see their baby grow up.