Combatting the Racial Disparity in Maternal Mortality

Kira Dixon Johnson was a vibrant young woman. She traveled, spoke five languages, and even raced cars. Kira and her husband of ten years had a 19-month-old son when they found out she was pregnant with another boy. They were full of joy – they had been hoping for two sons.

Kira never missed a prenatal appointment and was in wonderful health throughout her pregnancy. On April 12, 2016, she gave birth to her son, Langston, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles – a world-renowned hospital.

What should have been a happy occasion turned into a nightmare. Not long after delivery, Kira’s husband, Charles, noticed blood in Kira’s catheter. He alerted a nurse, and the staff ordered a CT scan. However, hours went by and no scan was performed, despite Charles repeatedly asking medical staff for help.

After seven hours, Kira was trembling uncontrollably and in intense pain when doctors finally took her for an internal exam. Charles was told his wife would be back in 15 minutes.

But he never saw her alive again. Kira’s stomach was filled with three liters of blood, and her heart stopped.

Racial Disparities in Maternal Mortality

Unfortunately, Kira’s story is not unique, particularly for black women in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women.

“It’s basically a public health and human rights emergency because it’s been estimated that a significant portion of these deaths could be prevented,” said Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

There are several reasons behind this racial disparity. Certainly lack of access and poor quality of care contribute. But there’s also a deeper problem.

“Basically, black women are undervalued. They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed” Langer says. Kira Johnson’s story alone is evidence of this. And unfortunately, she is one of many black women with this type of experience.

 Taking Action Through Legislation

The good news is that increased attention is being put toward this critical issue. Two years after losing his wife, Charles Johnson turned grief into purpose and is now advocating to rectify the country’s maternal health policies and regulations. Working with a congresswoman who experienced pregnancy complications of her own, he told the story of Kira’s death before Congress, helping to pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018. This legislation establishes and provides support to Maternal Mortality Review Committees, which work to asses every maternal death in order to identify why it occurred and how it can be prevented.

Also passed in 2018 was the Modernizing Obstetric Medicine Standards Act of 2018, or the “MOMS Act”. This legislation created a grant program to help states and hospitals implement maternal safety best practices and improved reporting on pregnancy-related and pregnancy-associated deaths and complications.

In addition to legislation that tackles maternal mortality in general, a bill was introduced in 2018 by California Sen. Kamala Harris aimed at reducing racial biases in maternal health care. The bill, called the Maternal CARE Act, creates incentives for medical schools to educate students about racial bias in maternal health care so that it can be prevented in the future.

Going forward in 2019 and into 2020, maternal mortality among black women will hopefully be a topic of national discussion. Several presidential candidates have spoken out about this issue, including Elizabeth Warren, who recently laid out a specific plan to tackle racial disparity in maternal mortality head-on.

“The best studies that I’ve seen put it down to just one thing: prejudice,” Warren said recently. “Doctors and nurses don’t hear African American women’s medical issues the same way as they hear the same things from white women.”

Her approach would involve making funding of medical providers contingent on the quality of care they give to mothers, and specifically to black moms.

There is hope that this growing attention and the passing of legislation will have a positive impact and that black mothers won’t have to face such risk when bringing a life into the world.


Grace Malloy is a 28-year-old living in the Greater Boston area, with interests in writing, public service, and women’s rights. While working as a software support specialist, she received her Masters Degree in Public Administration – a challenging yet fulfilling experience. She aspires to use her strengths and passions to make a positive impact on her community.


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