Speaking out for Black maternal health

Webinar explores ways to save lives and be supportive

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Andrae Rickets via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The way the Rev. Laura James sees it, caring for “the least of these,” as Jesus mentioned in the New Testament, includes advocating for Black maternal health.

James cited Matthew 25:35-40 during a Black maternal health webinar hosted by the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church.

“As a church, we cannot stand by and be silent as disparities and preventable deaths of Black mothers and their families grow,” said James, program coordinator for grassroots organizing for the General Board of Church & Society. “As people of faith, we must be a moral witness and stand for justice. We must educate, we must preach and teach our congregations that the sacredness of mothers’ lives, of Black mothers’ lives, matters. And we must also engage this through our advocacy.”

A brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation highlights racial disparities, such as these:

  • The pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women is more than three times higher than the rate for white women (40.8 vs. 12.7 per 100,000 live births).
  • Black and Hispanic women are at significantly higher risk for severe maternal morbidity, such as preeclampsia.
  • Among women with a college education or higher, Black women have a pregnancy-related mortality rate that’s more than five times higher than the rate for white women.

Cardiomyopathy, pulmonary embolism, and high blood pressure are among the common causes of pregnancy-related deaths among Black women, according to the KFF brief.

the Rev. Laura James

And “our bodies, as Black women, are being worn down more quickly because of the dual oppressions of sexism and racism,” James said.

She described “the least of these” as referring not only to people who are financially strapped but also those who are systemically oppressed, exploited, harmed and abused.

Racism and white supremacy are part of “a system of oppression that I believe that Christ is calling us to address when he calls us to care for the least of these,” James said. “This is a context that as people of faith we must confront and acknowledge and advocate to justly transform as God has called us to.”

James highlighted a “Saving Mothers’ Lives” resource that was recently updated to include articles on topics including maternal health and COVID-19, maternal health as it relates to child separation at the border, justice for incarcerated mothers and reproductive health.

“I hope you will use them as you are cultivating your faith voice to advocate for Black maternal health,” she said.

Aza Nedhari

Fellow speaker Aza Nedhari discussed reproductive justice, noting that it’s a human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, to have or not have children, and to parent one’s children in a safe and sustainable community.

A birthing person cannot make an individual decision about their body if they are part of a community where human rights are continually being violated through policies, laws, policing or even because of environmental dangers, said Nedhari, executive director of Mamatoto Village in the Washington, D.C. area.

Mamatoto Village is a Black-woman-led organization that provides perinatal support services, workforce development training and emergency resources for Black women and birthing people in vulnerable communities.

The organization takes a multi-generational approach when striving to improve outcomes for women, babies and families, emphasizing the “need to look back to create stability for the whole system to facilitate and move towards family wellness,” Nedhari said.

The organization also advocates for the promotion of human dignity and respect, Nedhari said, noting that in the United States’ troubled past, “there was no respect for the life and dignity and autonomy of each person, especially Black people, who were not viewed as fully human.”

Nedhari said members of the faith community can advocate for maternal health from a reproductive justice framework by making sure humility is their North Star while ministering and caring for people; checking one’s privilege along the way; and ministering in a person-centered, wholistic way.

“I believe that it is our duty for those who are in this space and who have been called to this space to cultivate and advocate for safety, for justice and for care.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, who represents the 14th District of Illinois, made an appearance, via a pre-recorded video, to promote the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 and stress her commitment to advancing legislation to save moms’ lives.

Among other things, the bill would make critical investments in social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes; provide funding to community-based organizations that are working to improve maternal health outcomes and promote equity; and grow and diversify the perinatal workforce to ensure that every mom in America receives culturally congruent maternity care and support, according to the website of the Black Maternal Health Caucus.

The Momnibus Act also would support moms with maternal mental health conditions and substance use disorders and improve maternal health care and support for incarcerated moms.

“These are necessary investments that will save lives and support families,” Underwood said.

Several resources were offered at the end of the webinar so people can take action. (Screenshot)

The event was hosted by Christian Brooks, Representative for Domestic Issues in the Office of Public Witness, who offered multiple resources for people who want to take action.

Those resources included “Applying A Racial Equity Lens to U.S. Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs,” a paper co-authored by Brooks that discusses the importance of taking racism and discrimination into consideration when creating and implementing policy.

“The desire is to give people the resources that they need to achieve equal outcomes,” she said.

To watch the hour-long webinar, go here.

The Office of Public Witness is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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