Black mothers face institutional racism in our healthcare system and the evidence is stark
The start of Black Maternal Health Week is a period of mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is hugely gratifying to see the work that is taking place to raise this issue. In parliament and across wider society, campaigners, MPs and healthcare professionals are working hard to ensure Black mothers are not left out. My colleague Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP has done tremendous work, securing a debate in parliament on this matter and the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Black Maternal Health. Her contribution, and the work of other campaigners has made a huge difference in raising the profile of this issue both in the Commons and with the wider public.
On the other hand, the crisis in Black maternal health remains both immense and tragically under-reported. The extraordinary disparities in Black maternal health cannot be ignored any longer. The statistics show that Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy when compared to their white counterparts. The gap in mortality rates extends to babies as well with mortality rates remaining higher for babies that are born to Black or Asian mothers than to their white counterparts. The situation facing Black mothers is so severe that in the UK a Black woman giving birth in 2021 is more likely to die than the average woman giving birth in 1965.
To address this issue, we must first understand its causes. Black mothers often face an underprescription of pain relief medication. To discover why that might be, we must consider the findings of Dr Janice Sabin, whose research indicates widespread false notions and hidden biases in white medical trainees.
According to her research, half of white medical trainees in the US believe such myths as Black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people. It would be foolish of us not to assume similar myths are widespread among healthcare staff in the UK.
Widespread health disparities in the US have let to action from President Biden. The 12 April marked the start of Black Maternal Health Week in the US and the president has already pledged to implement policy, backed up with $200m of funding, to end this disparity. Whether President Biden’s actions can match his rhetoric remains to be seen, but similar political will to act is sorely needed in Westminster.
With the NHS on our side, the UK can match or exceed the ambition of the US president, if the will is there. To do this, the government needs to name and tackle institutional racism within healthcare, not bury their heads in the sand. This means funding for new and existing programmes to tackle implicit bias alongside clear targets to bring down rates of adverse health outcomes for Black women.
Our current system fails Black women. It ignores our pain, denies us treatment and often causes our deaths at an unacceptable rate. Things can and must change.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington