The colour of your skin should have no impact on your health or your baby’s

The colour of your skin should have no impact on your health or your baby’s

Last month, we marked the second annual UK Black Maternal Health Awareness Week. Pregnancy and childbirth are two of the most vulnerable times of any woman’s life. For mothers and birthing people of colour having children in the UK, this vulnerability is still compounded by racial disparities in maternal healthcare. 

We know this government doesn’t like to talk about the ongoing impact race has on life in Britain, but the situation in maternity care is too serious to ignore. In 2021, Black, mixed race, and Asian women in the UK are respectively four, three, and two times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth.

We are now seeing a growing awareness around this issue, led by fantastic campaigners like Five X More, who established the first ever UK Black Maternal Health Awareness Week last year and marked the second last month. But turning around this situation will require action from the top to compliment these grassroots efforts.

Last year, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report which highlighted the persistently higher death rates for Black mothers. It noted that the NHS “acknowledges and regrets this disparity but has no plan to end it".

It is very important to look at what other countries beset by systemic racism in healthcare are doing to address it. In the USA, where Black mothers are between two and three times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth, the Biden-Harris administration has outlined an action plan to dismantle the systemic barriers Black women face in healthcare. Alongside the Black Maternal Health Week proclaimed by the White House this year, the American Rescue Plan Act 2021 reserved $30 million for implicit bias training for healthcare providers and helped states to expand post-partum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a full year.

Institutional racism is a driving factor behind these poor maternal health outcomes

Compare this with the UK. In April’s debate, the maternity minister pointed to continuity care as the government’s main hope for reducing maternal mortality rates. However, in practice, this policy has actually led to staff being pulled away from core midwifery teams, effectively de-prioritising high-risk pregnancies. One whistle-blower from Worcester Royal Hospital highlighted how the main antenatal ward was often left short of five or six midwives per shift.

If the government pushes ahead with these plans without addressing the 2,000 plus midwife shortage currently estimated by the Royal College of Midwives or the under-resourcing of maternity services, this could end up making existing disparities even worse.

Other measures raise doubt about whether they have truly understood that institutional racism is a driving factor behind these poor maternal health outcomes. A recent workplace tool designed to tackle health inequalities and improve childbirth services made mention of important socioeconomic factors like birth rates, population age and deprivation but excludes ethnicity among these risk factors.

When Black women detail our traumatic experiences of maternity care, we don’t do this to gain sympathy, we do it to give a voice to the hundreds of Black women every year who have similar experiences. We also do it in the hope that our stories will help to spur the change needed.

Nobody’s pretending that we can wave a magic wand and make racism disappear. But the first step to solving a problem is accepting that it exists - something which the government has refused to do so far. This month, instead of telling us they’re listening, I’d like them to show us they’re listening by setting binding targets to end racial inequalities in maternal mortality and morbidity and commissioning a review of institutional racism in the NHS.

Eliminating these inequalities will necessitate a whole range of action: from improving data collection to identifying barriers to maternity and mental health services, ending staffing shortages in the NHS, offering more support to at-risk women, and above all, engaging with Black women and putting them at the heart of these changes.

It won't be easy, but it’s the only way we will change the story and put an end to the disproportionate birth trauma experienced by Black women and birthing people. The colour of a mother’s skin should have no impact on her health or her baby’s.