Black Women’s Maternal Mortality Rates in the US are Staggeringly High

Pregnant African American mother holding her stomach

As part of ProPublica and NPR’s series on maternal care in the U.S., Nina Martin and Renee Montagne tell the devastating story of Shalon Irving, a vibrant 36-year-old epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who died three weeks after the birth of her daughter earlier this year. Irving was educated, insured, and well-supported by family and friends; still, she became a casualty of missed opportunities and neglect by healthcare providers. The story explores how a constellation of factors — not least of all bias in the healthcare system and the chronic stress of living with racism — combine so that black women are more than two times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

By April 2016, Shalon had given up. She had a new boyfriend and she was on her way to Puerto Rico to help with the CDC’S Zika response, working to prevent the spread of the virus to expectant mothers and their unborn babies. There she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by accident. Her excitement was tempered by fear that the baby might have contracted Zika, which can cause microcephaly and other birth defects. But a barrage of medical tests confirmed all was well.

More good news: A few weeks later Pryor [Shalon’s close friend] learned she was pregnant, too. “All right,” she told Shalon, “let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns! Because for so long it was just dark clouds and rain.”

In reality, Shalon’s many risk factors — including her clotting disorder, her fibroid surgery, the 36 years of wear and tear on her telomeres, her weight — boded a challenging nine months. She also had a history of high blood pressure, though it was now under control without medication. “If I was the doctor taking care of her, I’d be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one,’” her OB-GYN friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley said.

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