Breanna Lipscomb and Rose Aka-James smilingA lot of people want to help change the fact that black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women.

Members of the Atlanta-based Black Mamas Matter Alliance told attendees at a packed APHA Annual Meeting session on Monday that we can all help address the crisis by working together.

Led by black women, the alliance is a fully volunteer group that's already done amazing things in just a few years. But they're facing some challenges familiar to many of us in public health: lack of funding, resistance to change and a racist history rooted in what can only be described as reproductive injustice.

"There is not a serious investment in community-driven solutions in maternity health care," said alliance member Breana Lipscomb. She explained the group's goals to change policy, cultivate meaningful research, improve care for black mothers, and change the conversation around black maternal health so the women most deeply affected by current inequities have a voice.

One barrier to funding and attention for such efforts is a tradition of emphasizing infant mortality over maternal mortality.

"Our desire is to not just use infant health as a framework of entry so we can collect data," said alliance co-director Joia Crear-Perry, an OB/GYN. "At some point, some folks have to stand up for women."

One way to do that could be as simple as changing the name of some programs, Lipscomb told attendees. Georgia's Planning for Healthy Babies program aims to lower the number of low-birthweight infants born in the state. But what about well-woman care and support for women who do not wish to get pregnant?

To illustrate how racism drives policy, Crear-Perry showed a side-by-side comparison of the white opioid narrative and the black crack-cocaine narrative. The compassion shown in recent years for white women addicted to prescription painkillers stands in stark contrast to the news stories of the 1990s that vilified black women and mothers struggling with addiction.

Some key takeaways that Lipscomb shared with session attendees that we might all be able to work on:

  • Identify and name the issues that contribute to maternal health inequities.
  • Make a real commitment to incorporate health equity into your work. This means not only identifying health disparities but also not being afraid to call out racism when you see it.
  • Recognize access to care does not equal access to quality care.
  • Spend the time necessary to build meaningful relationships with community partners.
  • Elevate the contributions of black women-led care models.

The alliance has a wealth of great resources available online, including a toolkit for advocates and a "Black Paper" released in April on "Setting the Standard for Holistic Care of and for Black Women." Following next month's sold out Black Maternal Health Conference, the alliance plans to unveil some policy priorities and is working on guidance for providing training to care providers.

When a first-year medical student in the audience asked the panel how he could help ensure reproductive justice gets taught in medical schools, Crear-Perry said the alliance is working on a framework to tackle just that need.

"We're trying to get there," she said. "We're happy to have help."

Top right: Breana Lipscomb, left, and Rose Aka-James, both of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, pause for a photo at the end of a Monday afternoon APHA Annual Meeting session. Photo by Donya Currie