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Excerpted From: Ambria D. Mahomes, “You Should Have Said Something:” Exploring the Ways That History, Implicit Bias, and Stereotypes Inform the Current Trends of Black Women Dying in Childbirth, 55 University of San Francisco Law Review 17 (2020) (106 Footnotes) (Full Document)
ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2017, TENNIS SUPERSTAR Serena Williams gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. The day after giving birth, she had trouble breathing so she assumed she was having a pulmonary embolism. She alerted a nurse, but the nurse suggested that perhaps her pain medication had left her confused. Ms. Williams knew she needed a computed tomography (CT) scan and a heparin drip, but the doctor instead insisted on performing an ultrasound on her legs. The ultrasound revealed nothing, and only then the doctor heeded her suggestion and finally performed a CT scan. The scan revealed that Ms. Williams had several blood clots in her lungs. For the six weeks that followed, she underwent several operations and ultimately survived what she remembers as an extremely trying postpartum experience.
What happened to Serena Williams challenges the common understanding within the medical profession that negative birthing outcomes for Black women are attributed solely to poverty and lack of access to care and reveals that racial discrimination may play a larger role. Here, where a tennis extraordinaire made complaints that were disregarded, several questions arise: Why don't healthcare professionals take Black women's complaints of pain seriously; why do Black women have disproportionate negative outcomes related to pregnancy and childbirth; and further, what can be done to improve Black women's experiences in hospitals, clinics, and other medical settings? This Article seeks to explore why the disparities exist and suggests corrections to offset such issues.
Section I of this Article addresses the statistics that underlie the recent rise in awareness of Black women's negative health outcomes as a result of childbirth. Something that has become increasingly clear over time is, even with money and access, the treatment that Black women receive is not the same as that of other racial groups of women.
Section II places current events in a historical context. It draws connections between how Black women were treated in the past and how they are treated today. This Section shows that negative childbirth experiences are not a new phenomenon for Black women in this country.
Section III discusses the effect that stereotypes and bias have on Black women's childbirth experiences. Section IV gives examples of women's experiences.
Lastly, Section V suggests changes to the medical system as we know it.
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The healthcare profession needs to work towards granting women of all colors, shapes, and backgrounds equal access to suitable healthcare. With regard to Black women's negative health outcomes, the narrative ought to shift away from the general thought that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth because they are less likely to have access to the help they need. Rather, the profession should take a deeper look at the testimonies of the Black women who have had complications and died due to childbirth related causes even with access to quality healthcare. Individuals in the healthcare industry should dive deeper into the stories told by the families of these women and consider similarities. Societal barriers contribute to these occurrences, but the layer of racism, stereotypes, and implicit bias often go unaddressed. Throughout history, Black women's voices have often been ignored until it is too late. Only with awareness will change and intervention begin within the medical profession.
Ambria D. Mahomes is an associate at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, a civil litigation firm. She graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 2019 and currently lives in Chicago, IL.
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