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Racism leads to high rate of US black women who die from childbirth

Shamony Gibson with her partner, Omari Maynard, and daughter Anari.
Shamony Gibson with her partner, Omari Maynard, and daughter Anari. Courtesy of Shawnee Gibson

Black mothers in the United States are three times more likely to die from childbirth than white mothers, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York City, they are eight times more likely to die. The US is the only developed country in the world in which the rate of maternal mortality is on the rise. The epidemic is firmly rooted in racism.

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Every day, two-year-old Anari asks when her mother, Shamony, is coming home.

“Mommy hasn’t been there for extended days and the impact of that on a little baby you’ll never know. She misses her mom but she can’t express it like an adult would,” Anari’s grandmother, Shawnee Benton, told FRANCE 24.

“I say she’s just as fiery as her mum. I was with her earlier today and she’s in the twos, so it’s like 'NO' and 'WAIT' and just being sassy and I was thinking - if Shamony was here she would be the one who’d regulate Anari and say ‘No correct yourself and say 'please' and 'thank you’.”

Shamony Gibson died of a pulmonary embolism on October 6th, 2019, a fortnight after giving birth. She was 30 years old. Her newborn son, Khari, only spent two weeks of his life with his mother. 

How do you explain to a two-year-old that mummy’s not coming back?

Shamony Gibson's son Khari
Shamony Gibson's son Khari Shawnee Benton

At a community cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Shawnee Benton looks at the only photo she has of her daughter Shamony with both of Shamony's children and her partner Omari Maynard. 

“Khari will never know his mother in the way that we know her,” says Shawnee. She cannot bring herself to use the word 'death'. She talks about her daughter ‘transitioning’. It’s only been two months since her daughter passed away and the pain is raw.

Shawnee Benton looks at photos of her daughter Shamony Gibson at Bailey's Cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Shawnee Benton looks at photos of her daughter Shamony Gibson at Bailey's Cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. FRANCE 24

The question that haunts her family is whether Shamony would still be alive if she were white.

Shamony gave birth on September 30th. She had a C-section. A few days after she returned home she felt a shortness of breath. “She started having problems breathing then she was doing better and then we know how it ended...after 12 hours she was gone,” explains Shawnee.

A pulmonary embolism is one of the most common post-childbirth complications. Some 700 women in the US die every year from such complications, according to the latest CDC report. The study concludes that 3 of every 5 deaths are avoidable.

The US has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths among developed countries, and black mothers die in childbirth at three times the rate of white mothers, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In New York City, that racial disparity is even more stark: black women are 8 times more likely to die.

For a long time, experts claimed that high rates of diabetes and obesity within the black community were behind the elevated maternal death rates. They also argued that poorer communities were more at risk due to a lack of education or health care coverage. Yet those theories have now been debunked. Black mothers are still more at risk than white women even if they have university-level education and are well-off.

Dr. Deborah Kaplan, the assistant commissioner at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told FRANCE 24 that the problem is rooted in discrimination.

“Racism was baked into the DNA of this country and since then every policy has reflected that history, including the myth that black people don’t experience pain like white people," she said. "[It] affects people who are going to give birth and are complaining of pain or who may have a complication that is not taken seriously because simply of the colour of their skin.”

33 percent of black women say that they have been discriminated against in hospital or by healthcare workers, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by NPR. Incidents of doctors and nurses not listening to their patients or making assumptions based on race are increasingly common, Kaplan explained. 

This was the case for Shamony. Her mother, Shawnee, told FRANCE 24 that the first responders did not listen to her. “When they came to the house I mentioned the possibility of pulmonary embolism and it was dismissed. I also was asked several times if she used drugs, even though when they came I told them she just had a baby. I feel like if she wasn’t a brown girl things might not have unfolded in that way.”

Even tennis star Serena Williams says she fell victim to this sort of discrimination. In September 2017, Williams almost died from a pulmonary embolism after giving birth to her daughter via C-section. She told her story in an interview with Vogue Magazine, explaining that she felt short of breath and knew something was wrong. Williams said that at first medical staff did not believe her. She insisted and a CT scan proved her right - she had a pulmonary embolism. She was put on an anticoagulant heparin drip which saved her life. 

The hospital where Shamony was taken did not have such sophisticated equipment, Shawnee explains. “The hospital she was in, is one of these hospitals that does not get the resources and the funding put into it like other hospitals do. They did a great job with her but it’s in my mind that they didn’t have what they needed.”

If Shamony had been taken to another hospital, might she have survived? Shawnee’s eyes fill with tears as she wonders if something more could have been done to save her daughter. 

“It doesn’t make sense. She should be here. They, whoever has been taken like this, should be here.”

Growing up, Shamony helped take care of her two other siblings. Her mother describes her as a loving, strong and steady force in her family. She studied at New York University and had founded a company with her partner called ‘Art-ful living’ that promoted art as a way of life. “We’re a family of artists, we dance, we sing, we do theatre, we compose. Shamony was an incredible dancer,” Shawnee said.

Shamony Gibson's burial, October 2019.
Shamony Gibson's burial, October 2019. Shawnee Benton

New York City knows it has a problem. Dr. Kaplan is trying to help fix it. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an initiative last year to try and decrease maternal death rates among black women. With a 12.8 million dollar budget, the city is investing in its most underfunded hospitals and trying to educate medical staff about racial prejudices.

New York City is also working with doulas to provide pre- and post-natal support to black women. Chanel Porchia, who has six children of her own, is a member of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and has founded an association called Ancient Song Doula. “I’ve been where child protective services has been used as a tool to get people to comply with medical interventions that weren’t necessarily necessary at that moment," Porchia said. "Or I’ve seen partners who, because they’ve voiced their concerns, have had the police called on them and have been escorted out of the hospital." 

So those are things that occur on a regular basis and that’s all over the United States.”

In her workshop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Porchia advises mothers and women who want to train as doulas. “We really have to start to trust ourselves and our bodies and understand that we have rights. There needs to be institutional accountability. If hospitals perform poorly there should be some reprisal. All providers need to be taught about cultural humility. There needs to be policy reform.”

The issue of maternal health among black women has been raised in the 2020 presidential campaign, with Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden saying it’s time for plans to address the maternal mortality epidemic. “Black women shouldn’t have to develop elaborate birth plans or personally shell out thousands of dollars for extra eyes and ears at the hospital to ensure they survive the experience of childbirth. We’ve done enough observing and debating the effects of bias and racism in our health care system. It’s time to demand better outcomes,” Warren says on her campaign website.

Right before Christmas, Shawnee, Maynard, Anari and Khari will celebrate Shamony’s birthday. She would have been turning 31. “We’ll celebrate the life she had,” Shawnee told FRANCE 24. “I wanna make a difference for those who are still alive and who wanna have their babies and be free. What will make the difference is prevention, training and education and advocacy. I have to hold hope that her death will not go in vain.”  

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