The state of Minnesota has only one practicing midwife who identifies as black, according to this article in the Guardian. This isn’t just a statistic. Structural racism and implicit bias are real across the entire medical profession in the U.S., and they’re having a profound impact on the health, survival and childbirth experience of women of color. Even though structural racism in U.S. hospitals is an issue that’s gotten more press over the past few years, it’s still nowhere near getting addressed head-on. Black women in the U.S. are still three times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as white women, and according to the Guardian, “African American babies in Minnesota are twice as likely as white babies to die in their first year.” That risk goes up, even if slightly, for women over 35.
Why are black women more at risk? Studies show that a significant factor is the lifetime of racist and culturally insensitive treatment, both overt and subtle, they’ve received from doctors, nurses and medical staff. Outright medical neglect, along with the physical and emotional damage caused by years of implicit bias at the doctor’s office, has life or death consequences, and it’s contributing to the higher than average maternal mortality rate for black women. We already know that around the world, the more personally attentive treatment that midwives offer is correlated to healthier pregnancies and birth outcomes. But here in the U.S., midwives aren’t always treated with respect by obstetricians and the medical profession, and we’re seeing the results of this in the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developing world.
At Roots Community Birth Center in Minneapolis, founding midwife Rebecca Polston is giving black women and all women who seek her help the chance to experience a more attentive, respectful, culturally attuned pregnancy and childbirth. And according to the Guardian, the center is showing results. Roots Community had zero preterm births for its African American women clients in 2017, and only a 3 percent rate of first-time Caesareans.
With any luck, the positive media attention around Roots Community Birth Center will lead more centers like it to start opening around the U.S., and more midwives like Poulston—and doulas like Brooklyn’s Tia Dowling-Ketant—to have the chance to give women the personalized childbirth experience that can save lives.