Black women are dying at alarming rates during childbirth and no one seems to care.

In Mommyhood by Carlissa Shaw3 Comments

I was nearly 8 months pregnant. It was a hot Memphis September day and I had a full criminal court docket to tend to. I walked several flights of steps and did not have a few seconds to eat or drink anything from the time I got to the courthouse at 9 am until about 1 pm. Did I mention I was eight months pregnant? When I finally got a chance to sit down I stopped by Chick-fil-A and went to my best friend’s house. I ate a little food but I did not really have an appetite, which was normal during my pregnancy. At about 3 pm, I knew something was wrong. It was extremely hot outside and I was freezing cold. Literally, shivering because I was so cold.

I did not want anyone to panic so I attempted to manage this small crisis myself. I grabbed a cup of water and sat on the porch in an attempt to get warm. I waited for as long as tolerable before I called someone. Eventually, I called my best friend who called seemingly the entire world to come and make sure I was okay. I did not want it to be a big deal because I knew what was going on. I worked too hard, it was hot, and I did not have any water that day. It was a simple diagnosis; I was dehydrated.

When my friend and boyfriend got to the house, I was sitting outside in 90-degree weather wrapped in a blanket shivering. I tried to explain to them that I was okay and I just needed to drink water. They were not on board with my plan and convinced/ forced me to go to the emergency room. I am generally leery of hospitals, doctors, and everything associated with the two.

We get to the emergency room, and my boyfriend drops me off at the door while he goes to park the car. I went and checked in and they immediately rushed me to a room. I explained to the nurse what happened that day and that I just needed an IV. The nurse checked me and informed me that I was likely going to have the baby and that she needed to administer Pitocin to me. Now I do not know much about medicine, but I knew enough to slow this process down and ask my good friend Google some advice. Pitocin, a brand name drug, is the synthetic version of Oxycontin, a natural hormone that helps your uterus contract during labor.

I nearly cursed this nurse out.

All of this happened and Duke had not even made it to the room. I asked her if I could have a few moments to discuss this matter with my child’s father. She had a terrible attitude and told me she would need me to sign a voluntary refusal of treatment form because the situation was dire. Y’all all of this happened in less than 10 mins.

At this point I was pissed. I informed the nurse that I was a lawyer and that I would happily sign the documents. She informed me that I would have my baby within the next few hours.

The crazy thing was that I intuitively knew that I wasn’t in labor. I was dehydrated. When Duke got upstairs to the room I caught him up on all the information he missed while parking the car. He was great. He asked the nurse really good questions and was truly my advocate dealing with the pushy nurse. In the end, I signed the documents and decided to wait for my OB to come to visit me in the morning before starting treatment.

When my doctor got to the room the next morning, she read the chart and looked very confused. I explained to her what happened the night before. She assured me that we did the right thing in refusing the treatment and she could not figure out why the nurse made the suggestions that she did. I left the hospital shortly after discussing the matter with my OB. I did not complain to the charge nurse. I made no formal complaint to the hospital. I just left.
I went on to have a healthy 5lb 14oz baby girl nearly two months after this ordeal. When I read about Serena Williams’ birthing experience I immediately flashed back to my own experience. I often wonder what would have happened if I would have taken that Pitocin in the hospital.

In a Vogue cover story published online, Serena shared her agonizing postnatal experience, including an episode in which hospital employees did not act on her concern that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism, a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung by a blood clot.

Serena details her harrowing experience in detail in a Vogue interview:
Though she had an enviably easy pregnancy, what followed was the greatest medical ordeal of a life that has been punctuated by them. Olympia was born by emergency C-section after her heart rate dove dangerously low during contractions. The surgery went off without a hitch; Alexis cut the cord, and the wailing newborn fell silent the moment she was laid on her mother’s chest. “That was an amazing feeling,” Serena remembers. “And then everything went bad.”
The next day, while recovering in the hospital, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. (Serena lives in fear of blood clots.) She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. “I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”

The interesting thing about the issue of black women and issues during pregnancy and childbirth is that there is seemingly little to no association with economics, education, or profession. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women in the United States are over three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.

Now I have not done any independent scientific research into this and rely heavily on the statistic and facts made readily available to me. In a New York Times Article title, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are In a Life of Death Crisis” author, Linda Villarose shares some very eye-opening and staggering statistics.

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection.

In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.

This tragedy of black infant mortality is intimately intertwined with another tragedy: a crisis of death and near death in black mothers themselves. The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality — the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy — is now worse than it was 25 years ago. Each year, an estimated 700 to 900 maternal deaths occur in the United States. In addition, the C.D.C. reports more than 50,000 potentially preventable near-deaths per year — a number that rose nearly 200 percent from 1993 to 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts, according to the C.D.C. — a disproportionate rate that is higher than that of Mexico, where nearly half the population lives in poverty — and as with infants, the high numbers for black women drive the national numbers.

The stories are gut-wrenching. The numbers are staggering. The facts are reported but so little is being done to prevent horrific tragedies from occurring. Honestly, this topic for me did not seem so real until I realized that I once myself almost a victim of a health care system that is insensitive to the needs and voices of women of color.

No matter your gender, age, or ethnic background we all most advocate around this issue because this is truly a human rights issues. We must demand our governments, businesses, and healthcare providers do more to save the lives of black women and children. We should not have to bury our sisters and babies for preventable health-related issues in the United States of America.


  1. Wow! We must continue to educate our Sisters. I found this article disturbing but TRUE! A recent experience has cause me to research and google everything concerning my health. Continue to be that young strong voice crying out! Wishing you much LOVE and HAPPINESS!

  2. Great article. However, Pitocin, a brand name drug, is the synthetic version of oxytocin, not oxycontin. Oxycontin is the brand name of extended release oxycodone, which is an opioid.

  3. I am glad I read this article. I high a very bad experience during labor with my now nine year old twins. I could’ve lost my life.

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