Not only does race shape what a mother teaches her children, but also if she’s even around to teach anything at all.

A woman’s racial and ethnic background has more to do with her odds of surviving childbirth than her actual underlying medical conditions, according to a new study from the University of Michigan.

Dangerous complications in childbirth are relatively rare in the United States, but are on the rise. In fact, America has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. And the University of Michigan found non-Hispanic black women were 70 percent more likely to have severe birth-related health problems than non-Hispanic white women. ColorofChange executive director Rashad Robinson called the racial disparity evidence of “systemic racism” in hospitals.

A prominent example is the story of tennis superstar Serena Williams. Williams had a history of blood clots and was on blood thinners to prevent clots. She had to stop these treatments to heal from her c-section delivery. She recognized symptoms of her clotting disorder and was not taken seriously by medical staff, resulting in a series of horrific, yet preventable complications.

“Celebrities like Serena Williams who have shared their birth-related emergency stories publicly have drawn the national spotlight to the urgent need to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in care for women around the time of delivery,” said study author Lindsay Admon, an obstetrician at Michigan Medicine’s Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. “To drive and target those changes, we need specific data like these.”

Admon’s study focused on ten kinds of life-threatening complications, ranging from acute respiratory distress to eclampsia. Severe hemorrhages were the most common, making up 75 percent of the cases studied.

“Situations like these are often considered near-misses, and looking at them allows us to get a better picture of who the high-risk women really are,” Admon said.

Her study found that if women of color had the same rates of critical complications as white women, 8,100 fewer emergency lifesaving procedures would be needed a year.

The rate of women who die in childbirth has almost tripled between 1994 and 2014. The rate of severe complications has outpaced even that. Experts point to a combination of factors including high blood pressure and women giving birth later, but that doesn’t account for the racial disparity.

“Women of color who have multiple health conditions before they have their baby appear to experience a ‘double whammy’ effect, which should force us to think about how to structure care to best serve these vulnerable women, not only during pregnancy but before and after giving birth too,” said Admon.

NPR collected stories from women who experienced these “near misses.” You can view their stories below.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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