"Death by Delivery" Exposes How Shamefully Bad Our Maternal Care Is For Black Women

By Elizabeth Strassner

Expectant mothers in the United States have plenty to worry about, from concerns about medical costs and childcare expenses to wondering what, if any, parental leave they'll get. What millions of American mothers-to-be may notknow, however, is that one of the big worries is actually about their own health. Fusion's new documentary, Death By Delivery, which airs Wednesday night at 9pm, demonstrates why maternal mortality should be a real and pressing concern for thousands of women per year. Even more alarming, Black women face the biggest risks of all.

Most American women probably don't spend much time worrying about the medical complications they may face during childbirth. It's the same reason you don't worry about polio, scurvy, or malaria — these are all, supposedly, medical traumas that only affect women without access to modern healthcare. Yet, as Death By Delivery documentarian Nelufar Hedayat discovered, maternal mortality rates are higher today than they were in 1987. Black women, moreover, are nearly four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts. This statistic is all the more stunning because, according to the documentary, the discrepancies persist even when researchers controlled for socioeconomic status and education.

"You can be a college-educated black woman and you will have, in probability, a worse birth outcome than if you were a high school-educated, nonworking white woman," Hedayat tells Bustle. "This is not an issue about poverty," she adds, "but about racial discrimination."

If controlling for poverty doesn't eliminate the difference, what could be the cause of the maternity health gap between black and white women? Hedayat tells Bustle that the most compelling explanation reveals a story about the cumulative effects of growing up black in the United States. "This idea that the minute you're born as a young black woman, you're already at the bottom of the political capital pile ... you're not a middle-class white man, so already society is geared to not listen to you," she explains.

The double jeopardy of being black and female.

Simply being listened to can make an enormous difference in the healthcare system, and it explains at least part of why marginalized groups experience worse health outcomes. A University of Maryland study demonstrated that women's pain is not taken as seriously as men's by healthcare providers; consequently, women are less likely to be adequately treated for pain. Similarly, The Boston Globe reported that black pain patients are less likely to receive pain medication than their white peers — and even when black patients are given pain medicine, they receive less.

Black women, of course, are at the intersection of each of these areas of disparate treatment. It's what Dr. Fleda Jackson, a health researcher interviewed in Death By Delivery, calls "the double jeopardy of being black and female."

Fusion/Death By Delivery

Fusion/Death By Delivery

Watch full documentary here.