New statistics today** from MBRRACE-UK** today reveal that Black women are still four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth in the UK.
The data shows a slight narrowing of the divide – last year’s report found black women were five times more likely to die – but experts say that is statistically insignificant and not a sign of progress. The lead author of the report, Prof Marian Knight, said: 'The drop to a fourfold difference should not be a reason to lessen our efforts at a time when addressing these inequalities among pregnant women and new mothers should be a priority.'
After a near-death experience as a new mother, Grazia Contributing Editor Candice Brathwaite is determined to change the way Black women are treated when they become mums, and wrote about her experience for us.
'What are you here to talk about today’? The polite, unassuming receptionist at the BBC asked, as she escorted me to the lift.
‘Well,’ I said, I’m here to talk about the fact that Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth.’
She stopped so abruptly I almost bumped into her.
‘Oh, yes that must be such an issue in developing countries.’
I shook my head. ‘No, that’s in the UK, right now.’
Her silence spoke volumes.
By now I’m used to every reaction to this statistic. Tears, silence and even flat out denial. People often assume I’m talking about developing nations, that it couldn’t possibly be true of ‘our country’. But this is Black British women’s current reality. Should we decide to give birth in the UK, we are five times more like to die either during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. And since the data we so desperately needed became public by way of the MBRRACE-UK: (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK) report in November 2018, the NHS and the government have remained eerily quiet.
It’s something I feel so passionately about because I’ve had first-hand experience after almost losing my life to postpartum sepsis.
It was the smell which woke me first.
The scent was so violent, I had to try not to heave as I slowly tried to get my daughter off of my chest without waking her. I had no idea that baby poo could smell so horrific. But within ten minutes my husband and I realised that the smell wasn’t baby poo. It was coming from me.
The weight of her body had caused me as of yet unhealed c-section wound to open up and out of it was oozing black and green pus.
I wasn’t surprised. If anything, I was a little bit gleeful. For days I had been telling the midwives who had been sent to visit me that I didn’t feel well. I had been feeling clumsy, sweating through to the mattress every time I slept and I had felt a lump underneath my scar. I was told that I was clumsy because I was tired, my sweating was down to my hormones trying to regulate themselves and the lump underneath my C-section wound was simply uneven ‘scar tissue.’ I was advised to stop going on ‘those mummy websites’ as what I would find would only seek to exacerbate my anxiety and besides, this was my first baby, how could I possibly know how I should feel?
So now, as I was blue-lighted back to the hospital at which I’d given birth, I felt like I had achieved something, finally, my fears and worries would have to be taken seriously.
Within the hour, I was diagnosed as having severe sepsis and not soon after that I was rushed down to surgery. Through tears, I told the anaesthetist that I didn’t want to be parted from my baby girl. And with a firm sincerity that I will never forget, she looked me in the eye and simply said ‘Candice, if we don’t get you to the theatre now, there is a high chance you won’t be alive in the morning. So, if you want to see your baby girl at all, we have to go now.’
Stories like mine are not unique. Recently A-list celebrities such as Beyoncé and Serena Williams have both spoken about their difficult births. Williams revealed that she had to argue her way into having a doctor examine her when she felt unwell after her c-section, even though she had a medical history of suffering from blood clots and was no doubt paying a pretty penny for her care.
Although the dismal maternal mortality rates for African-American women have long since been made public, aside from peer to peer conversation, Black British women like myself had no data or evidence to depend on. Until now.
Having the data to hand made me braver about stating what I thought the issue had been all along and it was that the poor treatment was most definitely rooted in racial bias. From the moment I went to the doctor (who incorrectly assumed I was a single mother) up until during my induced labour when one of the midwives chastised me for not being ‘strong enough’, all of these microaggressions, judgements and the flippant treatment were entirely down to the fact that I was a Black woman.
The power of social media has meant that I’ve been able to exchange dialogue with a plethora of Black women who all have similar or unfortunately more horrific tales to share. One woman I recently spoke to told me that while she pulled through her son hadn’t been so lucky. And this is more often than not our grim reality. We come into the hospital via the labour ward and either us, our babies or unfortunately sometimes both exit via the morgue.
Black women are dying in their hospitals and we want to know why. There are Black obstetricians, doulas and mothers who too won’t stop until the NHS are forced to listen to our cries. I think my friend Remi Sadé (she is also a Black woman working hard to get answers) said it best ‘As I scroll through my phone book, my eyes linger upon the names of women who are yet to bear children. I wonder how many of them will choose to take the risk knowing that my child and I are some of the people escaped death in childbirth.'
It is chilling to consider if we will plan their baby showers for children they may not be alive to raise. It is haunting to know that there has not been an inquiry into WHY there is such a grand disparity between races of women who die in childbirth.’ Not only are we trying to get answers for ourselves but we are desperately trying to protect the lives of the Black women who will go on to become mothers in the future.
Sometimes it seems easier to get people to campaign to reduce plastic use than fight to ensure that the lives of Black British women don’t hang in the balance should they decide to have children.
For too long, Black women have had to endure difficult pregnancies and traumatic birth’s all whilst trying to muster the strength to advocate for themselves and this must simply not continue.
But we cannot do it alone. And why should we?
If you’re a Black woman on the precipice of giving birth you will find two things to be true, not only does it take a village to raise a child, but it may take one to save you too.
Please take the time out to support the petition, by clicking here.
Two minutes out of your day could help create a safer birthing experience for all Black women in the UK.
We asked the NHS to comment on the [previous] MBRACE research [at the time of Candice's article originally].
Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent OBE, chief midwifery officer for England, told Grazia: 'The commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to rolling out continuity of carer will ensure that thousands of women receive safe and personal maternity care, improving outcomes for both mother and baby, and reducing health inequalities.
'By 2024, 75% of women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, and a similar percentage of women from the most deprived groups, will receive this continuity of care from their midwife throughout pregnancy, labour and the postnatal period, as a key part of our ambition to achieve 50% reductions in stillbirth, mother and child deaths and serious brain injury.'
Candice Brathwaite is the founder of the Make Motherhood Diverse campaign.