Shalon MauRene Irving was a lieutenant commander in the uniformed ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service. (Courtesy of Wanda Irving)

Not One Thing Protects Black Women From Dying in Childbirth

by | August 13, 2018

Not wealth, not education, not even being an expert on discrimination in the health sector. Nothing protects women from dying in childbirth.

Shalon Irving friends gathered on a Saturday at a funeral home in a predominantly black neighborhood in Atlanta, to say their final goodbyes to her. Shalon, 36, and a single mom to, Soleil was an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many of the mourners were her peers and co-workers. Shalon’s father, Samuel, surveyed the rows of somber faces from the lectern. “I’ve never been in a room with so many doctors,” he marveled. “… I’ve never seen so many Ph.D.s.”

Her work focused mainly on discrimination and inequality in healthcare “She wanted to expose how people’s’ limited health options were leading to poor health outcomes. To kind of uncover and undo the victim blaming that sometimes happens where it’s like, ‘Poor people don’t care about their health,’” said Rashid Njai, her mentor at the agency.

“I see inequity wherever it exists, call it by name, and work to eliminate it.”

Shalon’s Twitter Bio Echoed Her Mission

After giving birth in the middle of 2016 to her daughter, the devastating happened. A mere few weeks after her daughter came into the world, Shalon collapsed one day, and died.

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Shalon, one of three siblings was soul crushing for her parents. Her two brothers had passed away, and now, their final child was being buried. Her mother, Wanda Irving was at the front of the chapel while holding her newborn grandchild.

Amid the funeral and farewells – there was an understanding of what her death represented. That if the person who was responsible for researching and dispelling the discrimination of black women in health care was now part of that stastic, would it ever end.

Women of color face an extremely high mortality rate in maternity care in the USA, and according to the CDC, are at a twenty-two percent higher at risk of death due to heart complications compared to white women, seventy-one percent higher from cervical cancer, and a staggering 243% higher to die from pregnancy-related causes and dying in childbirth.

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A national study showed that if you are a woman of color and had the same condition as a white woman, you are three times more likely to die from it. The. Exact. Same. Condition.

Instead of these statistics decreasing over time, they are actually increasing in certain parts of the country, such as NYC. Where black mothers are at risk of twelve times more at risk of death compared to white mothers. And even with the more recent data gathered; from 2001 to 2005, their risk of dying in childbirth was seven times higher. Results showed that for white mothers, their chances of death improved dramatically, but decreased for black mothers.

Looking over Shalon’s medical records, her friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley saw many missed opportunities “at multiple parts of the health care system.”(Ariel Zambelich for ProPublica)

When we hear about the mortality rate of women in the USA in pregnancy, and of women dying in childbirth, those numbers are not reflecting all women, they are directly related to women of color.

The data shows that there is nothing that protects black women,  not their monetary stance in society, their education, or anything else that might be used as a reason to explain away the death rate.

A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.

Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said. “It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem. You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”

For years, society tried to explain away these rates based on other factors, such as lack of health care due to poverty, yet, this data shows us, the problem is simply just racism.

Read the full story of Propublica

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Emma Williams

Associate Editor, USA | Contactable via [email protected]

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