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Black Women Leaders In Maternal Morbidity Discuss Reversing the Crisis

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, a day dedicated to honoring the love, sacrifice, and resilience of mothers everywhere, it’s imperative that we acknowledge the crisis of increasing preventable deaths among Black mothers. Despite advances in modern medicine, Black women continue to experience alarming rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, highlighting deep-seated disparities in healthcare access and outcomes.

The statistics are staggering. The tragic reality is that Black women in Michigan are dying at more than 2.2 times the rate of White women due to pregnancy-related causes and Black infants are dying at more than 3 times the rate of White infants. Most significant, according to Centers for Disease Control, 80% of maternal deaths are preventable! These disparities are not merely statistical glitches; they reflect a long history of systemic racism and injustice within the healthcare system.

Vernice Davis Anthony, CEO of VDA Health Connect

To understand the roots of this crisis, we must confront the historical injustices that Black women faced. Let’s look at the legacy of Dr. Marion Sims, a figure revered in the medical history books as the “father of modern gynecology.” However, Sims’ achievements came at a horrifying cost – the exploitation and suffering of Black women like Anarcha Westcott, Lucy, and Betsey, enslaved Black women that Sims performed countless inhumane experiments and surgeries on without anesthesia or consent. These barbaric experiments, conducted in the name of medical advancement, laid the foundation for gynecological practices that continue to shape women’s healthcare today.

The echoes of this dark past can be heard in the present, as Black women face disproportionate barriers to quality maternal care. Structural inequities, including limited access to healthcare facilities, implicit bias, and socioeconomic disparities, exacerbate the risks faced by Black mothers before, during, and after childbirth.

However, there is cause for hope. The recent introduction of the “MI Momnibus” bill package by Michigan Senate Democrats represents a landmark effort to address the root causes of maternal mortality and morbidity in the state. This bill aims to improve equity and accountability in maternal healthcare by expanding access to prenatal and postpartum care, investing in maternal mental health services, and addressing social determinants of health such as housing and transportation.

Supporting the Momnibus bill is not just an investment in the health of individual mothers and babies; it is an investment in the future of Michigan’s communities, ensuring that all mothers and children have the opportunity to live, thrive and contribute to our vibrant communities.

An important model that has proven to be effective in Michigan and around the country is the Regional Perinatal Quality Improvement Coalitions (RPQCs) that play a crucial role in driving change at the grassroots level. These collaborative networks bring together healthcare professionals, public health experts, parents, community leaders, and advocates to identify gaps in care, implement evidence-based practices, and monitor progress toward improving perinatal outcomes, with a strong emphasis on equity and reducing the disparities.

Iris Taylor, Detroit Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer

In Michigan, RPQCs are at the forefront of efforts to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity by promoting best practices in obstetric care, facilitating data collection and analysis, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders. By leveraging the collective expertise and resources of diverse partners, RPQCs empower communities to address the unique challenges facing mothers and infants in their region.

There are 10 PRQCs in Michigan, covering the entire state. We represent Region 10 that covers Detroit, out-Wayne County, Oakland and Macomb counties. Region 10 has 44% of all births in Michigan, and over 60% of Black births.

Southeast Michigan Perinatal Quality Improvement Coalition (SEMPQIC) the PRQC for southeast Michigan has made many strides that is making a difference. For example, our work on increasing the access to doulas in partnership with Black Mothers Breast Feeding, has uplifted doulas and increased awareness that doulas are an important resource that improves birth outcomes, especially for Black mothers. SEMPQIC has been working with Michigan Health and Hospital Association to assure accountability of hospitals to improve the quality of their perinatal care through the Michigan Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health program (MIAIM). We serve as the direct contact to the 23 birthing hospitals in Region 10, to assist, encourage and assure that the hospitals participate in MIAIM and commit to reducing maternal morbidity and mortality in their hospitals.

A few other areas of progress, includes our Implicit Bias and Equity training where we have trained over 300 participants, our outreach on COVID vaccine and the Fatherhood Initiative. All of these initiatives have the input of our network that includes parents, community-based organizations, health systems, health plans, fathers, physicians, the faith-based community and universities.

As we reflect on the significance of Mother’s Day, let us recommit ourselves to the urgent work of advancing maternal health equity. Let us honor the memory of Anarcha Westcott and countless other Black mothers whose suffering has too often been erased from history. Let us stand in solidarity with Black mothers across Michigan and beyond, demanding justice, dignity, and respect in every facet of their healthcare journey. In the spirit of this day, let us affirm that every mother deserves access to compassionate, high-quality care – regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We can build a society where every mother and child thrive, embodying the true spirit of Mother’s Day.