Spotlighting Racial Bias

In LaKeisha’s hometown of Atlanta, African American women die in childbirth at a rate more than three times the national average. Following an emergency c-section, LaKeisha experienced a brush with this unsettling statistic when she developed a painful infection.

While post-cesarean complications are not uncommon, inadequate follow-up care meant that LaKeisha was neither treated for nor informed about the signs of infection. For countless women like her, racial and socio-economic disparities in health care quality and insurance access have made childbearing an increasingly dangerous proposition in this country.

“There were no calls from the doctor’s office to say, ‘How are you doing?’” recalls LaKeisha. “I sat with an infection for two weeks. I thought it was just the pain [from the cesarean]. . . . I remember feeling horrible.” The lingering infection traumatized LaKeisha both physically and emotionally, especially when her financial situation forced her to return to work earlier than planned.

LaKeisha is one of 25 women we spoke to during the Center for Reproductive Rights’ joint effort with SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective to gather firsthand accounts of Southern Black women’s sexual and reproductive lives. The project documents the experiences of women living in Georgia and Mississippi—two states with the highest rates of maternal death in the country. Analyzing their stories has helped the Center identify key areas in which U.S. government policy is failing to address racial and gender discrimination in the sphere of sexual and reproductive health care.

This week, the Center and SisterSong brought these findings before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) during the committee’s periodic review of the United States. The CERD is the UN body responsible for assessing the efforts of member states to end racial discrimination.

In addition to testifying, the Center submitted a shadow report intended to supplement the government’s account of actions taken to address the Committee’s concerns from their last review, in 2008.

“These reviews allow us to spotlight issues of racial discrimination in the U.S. and bring to light various concerns that are not normally talked about in terms of racial discrimination,” notes the Center’s senior human rights counsel, Katrina Anderson, who is representing the Center at the review.

Anderson identifies specific concerns such as poor-quality care for women of color in public hospitals, inadequate public transportation to health facilities, and lack of coverage for preventive care as systemic issues for which the government needs to be held accountable. 

“Most people in the U.S. don't know we have a maternal mortality rate double that of Saudi Arabia. And those who do know about it view it as a public health issue,” she says. “Globally, however, preventing maternal mortality is a key human rights concern, and the international community has developed standards to hold governments accountable for high ratios of maternal deaths.”

Kendra, another woman we spoke to during the joint project with SisterSong, is from Mississippi, where a disproportionately high percentage of people of color live in poverty. In that state, there are counties where the risk of maternal death has risen to more than 20 times the national average—a higher maternal mortality rate than in Kenya or Rwanda.

No surprise then that Kendra, who became pregnant in the 12th grade after receiving virtually no sex education, says of her community, “We really don't have a lot of good experiences when it comes to childbirth.”

During this week’s testimony, the Center and SisterSong are urging the CERD to question the U.S. government about how it is addressing racial disparities in maternal mortality, especially in the South, where states have largely rejected Medicaid expansion yet are comprised of a disproportionate number of people of color who are unable to afford private insurance.

Additionally, the Center hopes the CERD will press the U.S. about laws that exclude immigrants from being able to obtain health care benefits. The shadow report points to Texas, where lawmakers have imposed sweeping barriers to essential reproductive health services, essentially blocking Latinas and immigrants in poor, rural areas such as the Rio Grande Valley from accessing such care.

“The 136% rise in maternal deaths in the U.S. over the past 20 years and the dramatic increase in racial disparities is a human rights crisis, brought on to large degree by gender and racial discrimination in the health care system,” notes Anderson. “Our hope is that the Committee will identify how the U.S. is falling short in policy and practice and offer recommendations for how federal and state governments can reduce racial discrimination.”

Taking the stories and statistics of this developing crisis to the international stage helps ensure that the distressing experiences of women like Kendra and LeKeisha cannot be dismissed. As with governments across the world, we aim to hold the U.S. responsible for addressing the complex of factors—including race, gender, and poverty—that continue to imperil the lives of millions of already marginalized women.