A Call To Action: Responding To The Crisis of Maternal Mortality

In the U.S., Black women are over three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. An online discussion Wednesday, Feb. 9, will unpack how we stem the high death rates and fight back.

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Kira Johnson, 39, died hours after giving birth to her son. Her husband, Charles Johnson IV, describes the death as preventable. (Courtesy of Charles Johnson IV)

In April 2016, Kira Johnson, an African American woman, died hours after the birth of her second son. Johnson was multilingual, a pilot, a marathon runner, and in excellent health. As such, she defied the harmful tropes and often baseless stereotypes about the Black women’s morbidity and mortality being caused or connected to a lack of exercise, attention to their own health and wellbeing, or poverty. Kira Johnson debunked every myth about Black women and maternal mortality and her death, along with countless others, demands a call to action.

Johnson had a scheduled cesarean section at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. According to her family, it was supposed to be a “a normal surgical birth for a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy”—but hours after the procedure, she began showing signs of hemorrhaging. Despite her husband’s efforts to alert medical staff of their concerns, he was told by a nurse that Kira “just isn’t a priority right now.” When she was finally taken to the operating suite, Kira’s husband Charles Johnson IV was assured that it was not a big deal and that she would be back in 15 minutes. Charles never saw Kira alive again.

“The thing that we are clear about is that there was a failure for the staff and the team at Cedars to see my wife the same way that they would view their daughter, their sister or their wife,” said Charles Johnson IV. “Kira deserved so much better.”

The United States is the only developed country where the number of people dying from pregnancy and child-birth related conditions continues to rise each year. According to a report published by the Commonwealth Fund, “the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries.”  In 2018, the U.S. rate of maternal deaths occurred more than double the amount of most other high-income countries.

Yet, the problem is so glaring that the rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. compared with other nations falls off the charts. This is because the United States ranks around 50th in the world in terms of maternal mortality, eclipsing peer nations such as Great Britain, Italy, Spain, France and Germany as well as behind Kuwait, Serbia and Bosnia. The U.S. falls closer within the ranks of Saudi Arabia than Canada.

There is an undeniable crisis involving the alarming rates of deaths associated with pregnancy in the United States and women of color experience this at the most alarming rates. As the Population Reference Bureau notes, Black women are over three times more likely to die due to maternal mortality than their white counterparts.

Moreover, this very serious problem threatens to become worse as the Supreme Court may be poised to gut Roe v. Wade and uphold draconian anti-abortion laws in Texas and Mississippi. Pregnancy is not a benign event.  However, a close listen to the oral arguments and reading of the transcripts in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the case involving the 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi—suggests that the justices may be blinded by their ideological beliefs. At least this seems to be the case when it trivialized the effects of pregnancy, as it did so during the oral argument in Dobbs.

Rather, pregnancy, is acutely dangerous to the pregnant person’s heart, lungs and other vital organs. Even relatively minor symptoms of pregnancy can linger for a lifetime or lead to permanent disfigurements. According to the CDC, severe maternal morbidity affects more than 50,000 people in the U.S. every year and that burden has been steadily increasing. At least 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy and delivery complications. The risks associated with pregnancy are well documented beyond the CDC, including in reports published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Population Reference Bureau, and The Maternal Vulnerability Index, among others.  

If the Supreme Court decides Dobbs the way many fear they will, the consequences could be devastating and even deadly for women and people with the capacity to be pregnant.

Confronting American Health Disparities: Race, Class & Maternal Mortality

With this backdrop, Ms. magazine has partnered with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California, Irvine, and the California Women’s Law Center for a call to action and to bring forth an important discussion engaging health disparities, race, sex and class, as related to maternal mortality. The discussion—the first of a four-part series titled “Confronting American Health Disparities”—takes place Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

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Moderated by Michele Goodwin, host and executive producer of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin,” the live online event will feature:

  • Charles Johnson IV, widower of Kira Johnson, and founder of 4Kira4Moms
  • maternal health advocate Judge Glenda Hatchett
  • Dr. Tabetha Harken, an obstetrician with a specialty on complex family planning
  • Nourbese Flint, program manager at Black Women for Wellness.

Join us as we unpack how the United States got to this point. What explains why U.S. maternal mortality exceeds that of other peer nations? Why are the rates of death associated with maternal mortality so acute in African American communities?  How might abortion bans exacerbate maternal mortality? And what can be done to stem the high death rates and create a better, safer outcomes in pregnancy? How do we fight back?

A recording of the discussion will be available as a special episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” Join us for this first in a series of discussions centering health disparities in America and examining how tackling these concerns are imperative to a healthy and well-functioning democracy.   

What’s Next in the “Confronting American Health Disparities” Series?

  • Access to Abortion and Health Care in the United States | April 6, 2022, 5:00 p.m. PST, 8:00 p.m. EST
  • Title X and Access to Contraception in the United States | June 8, 2022, 5:00 p.m. PST, 8:00 p.m. EST
  • Social Determinant of Health and Well-Being | September 7, 2022, 5:00 p.m. PST, 8:00 p.m. EST
  • Crisis Pregnancy | October 14, 2022, 5:00 p.m. PST, 8:00 p.m. EST

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About

Nassim Alisobhani is a voter protection attorney and senior legal fellow and coordinator of programs at the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at University California, Irvine. She is a producer for the Ms. podcast “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” She lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her husband and dog Luna Tonks.