More Black Women and Their Infants are Surviving Childbirth (Intro)

Hands-Karin-McKenna-photo credit. Owned by Miesha Wilson Headen

The Beauty for Ashes Project is a hyper-local exploration of pregnancy outcomes and emerging solutions of Black women before and during the COVID-19 crisis. This project was made possible with funding support from the Cleveland Foundation and the Solutions Journalism’s newly formed  Northeast Ohio Journalism Collaborative. A combination of Local / Hyper Media platforms here in North East Ohio.

By Miesha Wilson Headen

There is a need to hear the voices of Black women who have suffered the loss of a child or a mother during childbirth. We heard and recorded the stories of nine Black women from Cleveland. What we need is a call to action. We will analyze how the Greater Cleveland community has responded to this call.

Whether it is underlying medical conditions or healthcare disparities caused by the racial gap, the women’s stories provided invaluable insight.

Since 2010, Ohio has ranked in the lowest fifth percentile of 50 states along with Mississippi since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began posting data based upon race in maternal death and infant mortality. Though separated by 800 miles, Ohio stands nearly shoulder to shoulder with Mississippi in its care of pregnant black women.

There are wide disparities between black babies and white babies when it comes to birth outcomes in Cleveland, according to the Center for Community Solutions based in Cleveland. In 2017, black infants were 13 times more likely to die from low birth weight and preterm birth than their white counterparts. Black women were two and a half times more likely to die of pregnancy-related death than white women.

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This disparity remains when controlling for income and education. A college-educated Black woman of moderate to high income has a higher likelihood of experiencing infant loss than a white woman with less than high school education.

The data  and information resources for this story include organizations throughout the region: American Association of Clergy and Employers, Cleveland Clergy Coalition, Literary Cleveland, FreshWater Cleveland, and  First Year Cleveland. This story is funded by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is made up of more than 20 news outlets in Greater Cleveland, including the Ward 7 Observer.  Solutions Journalism Network sponsors this collaborative.

Solutions Journalism Network’s mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism which focuses on rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. We seek to rebalance the news so that everyday people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.

Over the next three months, we will analyze Cleveland’s progress in reducing its high infant mortality rate, including the setbacks and solutions, through the eyes of pregnant mothers, their advocates and the medical establishment.

  • The solutions would help curb and possibly resolve the disparity of health care for pregnant black women.
  • The influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on pregnant Black mothers.
  • The history and relationships between Black women and their obstetricians and gynecologists, including how these interactions affect current statistics about prenatal deaths, infant mortality, and maternal mortality.
  • The toxic effect of institutional racism on Black women’s wombs is called “weathering.” Weathering triggers extreme prematurity and late-term fetal deaths, yet community champions work to deliver healthy Black babies and support their mothers.

During the Beauty for Ashes Project something beautiful and unexpected happened when we gathered the group of Black women to tell their stories. They no longer resided within their individual grief but perceived themselves as a collective of sufferers seeking reproductive justice.

The Beauty for Ashes Project is personal to me as well. Viola Penro, my grandmother, bled to death in 1951 shortly after giving birth to my Uncle Isaiah in the colored wing of Mississippi’s Tupelo Community Hospital which boasted its own sink and toilet. Her death was quick. Her Aunt Viney left her side to get coffee in the segregated cafeteria, but minutes later found her dead. Dr. P.K. Thomas, Jr. was Tupelo Community Hospital’s only gynecologist-obstetrician for more than 15 years. Whether he attended to my grandmother as she hemorrhaged to death was lost to history.

Viola Penro’s story was lost, but Beauty for Ashes has memorialized the stories of similarly situated Black women.

The pain, experience, and hope for Black women in their maternal health is exemplified by the work and personal experiences of project participant Dr. Susan Stephens, a Black orthopedic surgeon at University Hospitals. She spoke about the necessity for the medical community to hear Black women’s experiences with the healthcare system: “Half the time, they don’t even see you. Let’s be honest, right?  You don’t even really exist half the time. The system’s stronger than any one individual.”