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  • Writer's pictureNoelani Pearl Hernandez

Why Women Of Color Die Disproportionately During Child Birth: systemic racism in the medical field

Dr. Shalon Irving, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (36), Shalon focused on understanding how structural inequality, trauma, and violence made people sick. Three weeks after giving birth, Shalon collapsed and died from complications of high blood pressure.


Shalon was exceptional and an advocate for focusing on how racial inequalities affected people of color in health care. Even with her B.A. in sociology, her two master's degrees and dual-subject Ph.D., her stellar insurance plan, and her excellent support system, she died. WHY?


Black and indigenous women in the U.S. are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than white women. One in three women of color in the U.S. will experience maternal mortality in their lifetime. While many factors contribute to these disparities, one of the root causes is systemic racism in the medical field.


To address systemic racism in the medical field, it is vital first to understand how it manifests. Systemic racism is the structural and institutional discrimination of marginalized groups. This can manifest in many ways, such as segregated housing, unequal access to healthcare, and higher rates of police violence.


There is no one silver bullet that will address systemic racism in the medical field. But many things can be done to start moving in the right direction. This includes increasing diversity in the medical field, improving access to quality healthcare for all, and increasing accountability.


If we want to improve the health outcomes of black and indigenous women, we must address systemic racism in the medical field.


It is well-documented that women of color in the U.S. are three times more likely to have maternal mortality in their lifetime than their white counterparts. Similarly, indigenous women in the U.S. are approximately four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than white women. This phenomenon is further compounded by the wide socio-economic disparities Black and Indigenous women face, such as higher rates of poverty, lack of access to health insurance and quality providers, and racism within the medical system.


One in Three Women of color in the US Will Experience Maternal Mortality in Their Lifetime: Maternal mortality is defined as maternal death during or up to one year following pregnancy. Unfortunately, one in three women of color in the U.S. will experience maternal mortality in their lifetime due to a wide range of issues, such as pre-existing health conditions, lack of access to quality providers, and lack of prenatal care. Moreover, due to institutionalized and structural racism, black and indigenous women are often overlooked in the healthcare system, leading to inadequate pre and postnatal care.


Studies have shown that women of color are more likely to be treated with less empathy and respect by medical staff and are less likely to receive the same level of care as white women. In addition, women of color are more likely to be misdiagnosed, and their pain is more likely to be ignored. This lack of respect and empathy can lead to poorer outcomes for women of color, who may not receive the same medical care as white women.


These disparities exist because of the long-standing societal belief that women of color are less valuable than white women. This belief is ingrained in our society, and it manifests in the way that women of color are treated in the medical field. It's time to change how we think about women of color and value their lives equally.


Another factor rarely addressed is chronic stress and implicit bias. Women of color are also more likely to experience chronic stress and trauma, which can harm their health. Studies have shown that stress can increase the risk of pregnancy complications and even lead to pre-term labor.


In addition, women of color often experience implicit biases from medical staff, who may be more likely to treat women of color with less respect, care, and empathy than white women. These biases are often subconscious, but the implications can be grave. Women of color are more likely to be misdiagnosed, and their pain is more likely to be ignored. This can lead to complications during pregnancy and childbirth, which can be deadly for the mother and child.



While access to healthcare has improved in recent years, there are still many areas where black and indigenous women lack access to the healthcare they need. In addition, women of color are less likely to be able to afford high-quality healthcare. They are also more likely to live in low-income areas with high rates of poverty, which means they may not be able to get the healthcare they need promptly.


This lack of access to quality healthcare can have dire consequences for black mothers, who are more likely to experience complications during pregnancy and childbirth due to a lack of proper medical care. Furthermore, many women of color experience discrimination in healthcare and face implicit bias from medical staff.


This systemic racism in the medical field is one of the root causes of this disparity in maternal mortality rates. Systemic racism is the institutionalized and structural discrimination of marginalized groups and manifests in many areas, such as unequal access to healthcare, segregated housing, and higher rates of police violence. This can also manifest in the medical field through discrimination in the provision of services, limited access to quality providers, and inadequate training of medical staff.


Addressing systemic racism in the medical field is a multi-pronged approach is essential. This includes increasing diversity in the medical field, improving access to quality healthcare for all, and increasing accountability and transparency within the medical field. Increasing diversity in the medical field can help ensure that the field is well-equipped to provide the best quality care to all patients regardless of race, background, or income.


Moreover, improving access to quality healthcare for all, emphasizing marginalized communities, can help reduce healthcare disparities. Finally, increasing accountability and transparency in the medical field will ensure that healthcare providers and institutions are held to the highest standards of care.


The reasons why women of color die more often during childbirth are complex and multi-layered, and no single solution can address this critical issue. What is needed is a systemic approach, which includes increasing access to quality healthcare, reducing chronic stress, and raising awareness of implicit bias.


We must address systemic racism to reduce the maternal mortality rate among women of color in the U.S. We must change how we think about women of color and start valuing their lives equally. Only then can we tackle this critical issue and ensure that all women receive the care and respect they deserve.



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