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Racism within maternal healthcare: new data shows Black women are almost four times more likely to die at childbirth

racism within maternal healthcare

MPs have criticised the government for failing to tackle racism within maternal healthcare as new data sheds light on how Black women and women living in poverty-stricken areas are more likely to die from childbirth.

MPs condemn “appalling” data

The report, conducted by the Women and Equalities Committee, voiced concerns that NHS leaders and the government have “underestimated” how much racism drives inequalities. The Committee urged the government to set a clear target to stop “appalling” inequalities in maternal deaths.

MBRRACE-UK, the national research programme that investigates maternal deaths, said Black women are almost four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. The study took place from 2018 to 2020 and saw an increase in maternal death rates in deprived areas. The research showed women living in the most poverty-stricken areas of the country were 2.5 times more likely to die than those in the least deprived areas.

Caroline Nokes, a Tory MP who is the committee’s chair, said that while NHS births are among the safest worldwide, “appalling disparities in maternal deaths” prevail.

The MP for Romsey and Southampton North added: “Improvements are not happening quickly enough. One of our biggest concerns is staffing shortages in maternity care. We need to see a sustained uplift in funding to bolster a workforce that has been stretched to its limits.

“We are also afraid the government and NHS have not fully grasped that racism has played a key part in the complex reasons underlying the disparities, and that eradicating it is part of the solution.

“It is unacceptable that we consistently hear poor quality data on ethnicity is hindering efforts to address inequality. The onus is on authorities to improve data collection practices. We cannot let these women remain invisible to the systems supposed to serve them.”

Concerns that taskforce doesn’t make any reference to racism

MPs criticised how the government has dealt with the taskforce in charge of addressing maternity care disparities. They said this was supposed to convene every two months but hasn’t met the target for nine months. 

The committee expressed concerns that the taskforce did not make any reference to racism and MPs urged the taskforce to provide explicit metrics for measuring its progress and to provide regular updates to the committee every six months.

Ignorance, bias, microaggressions and racism at play, says MP

Discussing the ethnic maternal death inequalities published in the report, MPs noted there were many “possible reasons” at play. “Including pre-existing conditions and co-morbidities; socio-economic factors including deprivation; and factors impacting on the care that women received, including ignorance, bias, microaggressions and racism,” the report stated.

Not “surprised” by the data

Sandra Igwe, founder of The Motherhood Group, a social support group for Black mothers, said she was “saddened” but not “surprised” by the data.

Ms Igwe, who co-chaired the National Inquiry into Racial Injustice in Maternity Care said the report “documented the traumatic experiences of Black and brown women who felt unheard and dehumanised through their pregnancy and birth which coincides with my lived experience also.”

“Healthcare professionals failed to hear her concerns or identify symptoms due to the colour of her skin”

She added: “We heard accounts of women whose worries were dismissed, including a Black woman who almost died of sepsis after healthcare professionals failed to hear her concerns or identify symptoms due to the colour of her skin.

“One of the most common experiences described in the testimonies we received was of Black, brown and mixed ethnicity women and birthing people’s pain being ignored or denied, and of pain relief being withheld due to disbelief among staff that labour had begun.”

Final thought

The new data has opened up a conversation about systemic racism in maternity care and voiced the unacceptable inequalities that hundreds of women from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds are facing today. 

Ministers need to accept and acknowledge that ignorance, bias, microaggressions and racism exist in the UK and establish a sustained uplift in funding to bolster staffing shortages. In doing so, health professionals can better protect the well-being of Black women and women living in the most impoverished areas and potentially save hundreds of lives. 

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