As part of their “Lost Mothers” series on maternal mortality, ProPublica and NPR published a report on the chilling racial disparities in maternal health. According to the report, the alarmingly high rate of maternal death among black women is primarily responsible for the U.S.’s high maternal mortality rate overall.
Per ProPublica and NPR: “A black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent* more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.” This disparity persists across economic and education lines; in New York City, for example, college-educated black women are more likely to suffer severe pregnancy or childbirth complications than white women who never graduated high school. As Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told ProPublica and NPR, “It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem. You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem.”
Heartbreakingly detailed in the report, McDonald-Mosley’s close friend, a black mother named Shalon Irving, collapsed and died three weeks after giving birth. In the days leading up to her death, Irving repeatedly expressed that she wasn’t feeling well. Her legs were swollen; she was retaining water and gaining weight. The morning of her collapse, she was seen by a nurse practitioner, who prescribed a blood-pressure medication and sent her home.
When McDonald-Mosley examined Irving’s medical records a few months after her friend’s death, she noted that a complex pregnancy had not seemed to signal to her caregivers that she required extra attention. “There were all these opportunities to identify that something was going wrong,” she told ProPublica and NPR.
After the hospital where her daughter died told her no autopsy was necessary, Irving’s mother paid $4,500 for an autopsy by medical examiners in a nearby county. Examiners found evidence of damage to Irving’s heart consistent with hypertension, and concluded she died of complications related to high blood pressure.
Before her death, Irving worked as an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, focusing on the link between structural inequality and health. She held a B.A. in sociology, two master’s degrees, and a dual-subject Ph.D. She had quality insurance and the support of friends, family, and colleagues.
As the report asks, “If a village this powerful hadn’t been able to protect her, was any black woman safe?”
*An earlier version of this article misstated the likelihood of black women to die of childbirth. They are 3 times more likely, not 300. Additionally, per ProPublica’s update: Black women are 243 percent more likely to die than white women.