I recently had the honor of speaking at the inaugural Los Angeles March for Moms (shoutout to Melaney Lubey, Women’s Advisory Board member for the City of West Hollywood, and VP of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at dailyKARMA for extending the invitation), one of the 50 sister marches that happened on the same day as the march in Washington D.C. We were a small but mighty group that gathered in Pershing Square to hear stories about birth trauma, the history of black midwifery, why we need paid leave in America, surviving near-death experiences in childbirth, stories about preventable deaths from childbirth, and the way the medical system is failing mothers spectacularly.
My topic of choice was maternal mortality. I shared how as a journalist and filmmaker, working on a documentary series about reproductive health and rights called ‘LIFE AT ALL COSTS: Going Beyond Pro Choice vs Pro Life’, I was shocked and utterly flawed by the research I came across around this issue. America has the highest rates of maternal mortality in the developed world, and for black women, the rates are 3–4 times higher. This gives you a clear indication of the systemic racism in America’s healthcare that we are experiencing this epidemic in 2018. We spend more on military than any other nation on this planet. But how can we truly call America “the most powerful nation on earth” when it is the most dangerous place in the developed world to give birth?
While listening to a recent episode of the badass Hellbent podcast, host Devon Handy spoke with Natalie Telyatnikov, founder of Better Postpartum, an organization dedicated to lowering the maternal mortality rate and help women get through Postpartum Depression and other Postpartum medical issues. Natalie mentioned that America’s current rates haven’t been as high as they are now since the late 1800’s — a time when women would sew their own burial shrouds along with their bridal gowns in preparation for marriage, as the inevitability of them dying in childbirth (something that was an expected role for women in that era) was pretty damn high. That visual almost made me swerve in my lane while driving home on the 405 that day…
At the Los Angeles march I had the opportunity to learn more about issues affecting mothers as research for my docu-series while listening to other speakers, recognizing that now I am a mother myself (I gave birth to my son Frankie 8 months ago), I can no longer turn a blind eye to what mothers across this nation are facing.
Maternal health advocate and political activist Karleen Basch spoke about her own traumatic experience in the birth ward and drew comparison with the lackluster response from legislators to the growing epidemic in this country. There have been bills sponsored and introduced in Congress that have bipartisan support, but they never get to the voting stage. I guess that means those in the House Speaker and Senate Majority leader positions haven’t been too interested in protecting and focusing on the issues of women…
Kimberly Durdin, a midwife and birth advocate, spoke about the storied history of racism within the midwifery profession, especially in the South. When black midwives were dominant up until the early 1900’s, they rarely lost a mother. Giving birth was not considered a “medical procedure” the way it is now. But in states like Alabama, as the 1900’s rolled on, black midwifery was becoming outlawed, especially as the medical profession started taking over childbirth and labor, and white midwives like Ina May Gaskin started to become known.
She told the story of a black midwife named Miss Margaret who was famous in the South for delivering over 3000 babies without losing a mother. But similar to the anecdote mentioned about about women sewing burial shrouds with their bridal gowns, as black midwifery became outlawed, women in rural areas would have to travel up to 300 miles to get to their nearest hospital in the case of a home birth going awry. Here’s the kicker — in situations like this, the women would be picked up in a funeral hearse because the likelihood of them dying along the way was highly likely.
Today, only 5% of midwives in the US are African-American, but there is a real need for midwifery to go back to its roots. States which currently have the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates are also places where midwifery is integrated into mainstream healthcare. Kimberly‘s talk underscored for me why racism needs to be addressed within the healthcare system, and we are only just now starting to really see more widespread awareness about this.
You may have recently seen the news about the J. Marion Sims statue being taken down from Central Park in New York City. Widely spoken about as the “father of gynecology”, his was a grotesque and hideously racist career that should never have been elevated to any sort of pedestal, figuratively or literally. He was known to practice experimental procedures on enslaved black women’s vaginas without anesthesia. This gives you a clue into one of the fundamental problems of America’s healthcare system today — we are still yet to pay reparations from our past, and it is popping up in similar but different ways today.
The final speaker from the Los Angeles rally I have to mention is Celine Malanum, a mother of 3 and a birth and breastfeeding community advocate who has worked for a handful of organizations dedicated to supporting mothers and babies. She shared harrowing experiences of two traumatic births and two periods of severe postpartum depression and anxiety. Third time around, she didn’t experience any depression or trauma, and the key to this was her voice being heard by the doctors and medical professionals she chose to surround herself with. Celine spoke powerfully and emotively about the way mainstream healthcare tends to render the pregnant mother invisible and ignore her wishes. We have seen this lead to needless and preventable deaths, such as in the case of Kira Johnson whose complaints about abdominal pain after a C- Section gone wrong were ignored too long by hospital staff and she ended up bleeding to death by the time doctors realized what she was experiencing was not “normal” postpartum pain.
The epidemic of women’s voices being ignored, especially that of women of color and low-income women, is a key thread in our maternal mortality rates. It is unthinkable that something as simple as LISTENING to what women have to say about decisions concerning their bodies is at the core of our fundamentally flawed system, and thankfully this is being brought to light in the media. Tennis champion Serena Williams has spoken publicly about how she nearly died after childbirth. Having a history of pulmonary embolisms, she mentioned this to her doctor after labor as she was experiencing pain. The doctors brushed her off, telling her it was “normal”. Thank GOD for the world champion having a voice to demand someone listen to her, because the outcome could have been very different if she did not. Now imagine the same scenario with numerous women who don’t have the money, status, or voice that Serena does…
When you zoom out of the issue of maternal mortality a bit, you will see this problem is part of a larger epidemic in America of women’s bodies, choices and lives being controlled by men, religion, and institutions that have no business or expertise making decisions for us. Remember the image of the all-male, all-Republican panel deciding on the future of women’s healthcare under the newly appointed Trump administration? That’s not an anomaly by any means, that is the NORM in America. Let’s face it:
When we look at the larger landscape of especially reproductive healthcare bills being passed at a furious rate in both state and federal legislatures across the country, we see such a fastidious obsession with restricting abortion earlier and earlier, as if it’s a race to the bottom of who can oppress women the fastest and hold the mantle of stripping us of our rights and dignity to make our own informed healthcare decisions. Just this past week the news of Iowa’s legislature and Governor signing a 6 week abortion ban into law underscored this. The Republicans who lead this stunt (yes, that is exactly what this is) were very open about admitting they weren’t trying to save lives, they were deliberately wanting to sign a controversial bill that would be challenged in court in the hope it would reach the Supreme Court and potentially see the Roe vs Wade ruling overturned. How “pro life” of them to focus on scoring political points and using tax-payer money to do so.
Meanwhile, women and children are dying from childbirth, and we can’t even see a major bill get voted-on or passed to address the issue. As NPR’s Renee Montagne along with Pro Publica’s Nina Martin reported on this issue in their in-depth article about deceased mother Laurie Bloomstein,
“The ability to protect the health of mothers and babies in childbirth is a basic measure of a society’s development. Yet every year in the U.S., 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die — by many measures, the worst record in the developed world.”
As I write this piece on a day sandwiched between the March for Moms and Mother’s Day, despite the bleak, hypocritical and depressing stats I listed above, I remain hopeful. There are advocates, organizations and people on the forefront of change who are elevating our collective consciences to what is at stake. Change can start with something as simple as sharing a fact-based article on social media, and encouraging your community to think deeply and differently about how they vote in the next election. Enlightening people about the high rate of mothers dying in “the most powerful nation on earth” could perhaps prompt someone to start hounding their representative to take notice of this issue and work on a bill.
For reference, there are two Federal bills that have not gotten any traction in Congress. Senate bill 1112 “Maternal Health Accountability Act of 2017” sponsored by Democratic Senator Heidi Keitkamp from North Dakota, and the House of Representatives bill 1318 “Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017” sponsored by Republican Representative Jaime Hererra Beutler from Washington District 03. If enough people put pressure on legislators to bring forth these bills for a vote, we could see change happening.
There is so much more I can write about, but for now I will end with a list of resources that can be helpful as you consider what is at stake for mothers across America.
Some reproductive justice organizations to support: Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Sister Song Women of Color, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and Improving Birth, just to name a few.
I highly recommend watching ‘When The Bough Breaks’ documentary on Netflix, from director Jamielyn Lippman and narrated by Brooke Shields. It sheds light on the postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Truly heartbreaking stories that will move you to action.
‘Birthright: A War Story’ is a powerful documentary from Civia Tamarkin and Luchina Fisher showing the dangerous and oppressive result abortion restrictions are having on pregnant women who choose to parent, as well as those who suffer miscarriages. It is an eye-opener to the reality of the types of unnecessary abortion bills I mentioned above.
And a forthcoming documentary titled ‘Mother May I?’ focuses on obstetric violence and the horrific problems that arise when women’s voices and choices are shutdown by doctors during childbirth.
If you are interested in learning more about America’s maternal mortality crisis, I highly recommend NPR’s ‘Lost Mothers’ series created in collaboration and research with Pro Publica. The New York Times published an excellent piece of journalism by Linda Villarosa titled ‘Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life or Death Crisis’ that is essential reading.
To all the mothers out there across America, may 2018 be the year we get less flowers, candy and spa treatments (although those are cool too!), and more displays of love and care through the institutions that we rely upon every day to survive and thrive. Happy Mother’s Day.