It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say that news coverage about Black pregnancy emphasizes poor outcomes. This isn’t inherently bad. Black maternal mortality awareness helps inspire policy changes, targeted funding, additional training for providers, and other solutions. And this knowledge can empower individuals too. It can help Black pregnant people figure out how to advocate for themselves against a racist system, even though it can be exhausting to think about the barriers and challenges they face when giving birth and endeavoring to survive to raise their children.
Yes, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related reason than white women are, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But how do we resist the temptation to let fear dominate our thoughts in the face of increasingly disturbing facts? Kimberly Seals Allers has launched a new podcast to help us all answer that question. Seals Allers is a health journalist and founder of IRTH, a Yelp-like app that allows Black pregnant people and their partners to review birthing centers, hospitals, and doctors. Her new podcast, Birthright, is based on the notion that we can learn as much from Black triumph as we can from Black pain.
For the uninitiated, the reasons for why Black people die from pregnancy-related causes at higher rates are multifaceted. Black pregnant people are at higher risk for cardiovascular conditions like preeclampsia and eclampsia, which are blood pressure conditions that can negatively impact pregnancy and labor outcomes. Then there’s the relentless biological stress that comes from existing as a Black person in a racist society. These factors, of course, all existed before COVID-19 came into our lives. “The pandemic only exacerbated the weaknesses in our system, and the system was already failing, particularly Black and brown women and birthing people,” says Seals Allers. “So what we’ve seen is that it’s just getting worse.”
The ways that death and despair dominate Black birth narratives help raise awareness, but it can also trigger anxieties in people who are or wish to become pregnant. “In my experience, working on the ground in the community, talking to Black and brown working people all the time, people were becoming afraid,” Seals Allers says. “People are preparing death documents to give birth. This cannot continue. We have to show that there is hope and possibility.”
So Seals Allers set out to discover the treasures tucked inside positive birth stories. “I see the work as twofold,” she says. “[It’s] not just adding this idea of possibility and hope…. It’s about learning lessons from our joy and not just pain.”
Each Birthright episode features a Black birth story told from multiple perspectives: The pregnant person recounts their experience, but listeners also hear from the doctors, midwives, doulas, and partners who participated as well. It’s a treat to hear from the dads and partners who supported and witnessed their children being born. Throughout each episode, Seals Allers acts as both interviewer and narrator helping us contextualize each birth story so that we come away with a sense that good birth stories do happen and that certain conditions can make them more likely.
For instance, in episode two, Shenika Welch-Charles, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at the University of Texas, shares that research suggests having a Black doctor can increase positive outcomes for Black patients, but what matters most is that care teams provide a consistently high standard of care no matter what their patients look like. This call for a clear standard of care aligns with the sad fact that over 60% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, according to the CDC. The onus is on the health care system to provide adequate care for Black patients and other patients of color.
Ultimately, Birthright is a candid and unapologetic celebration of Black-birthing joy, but Seals Allers says that upcoming episodes will expand to examine the healing journeys of people who’ve had less than positive birth experiences. “There are positive stories we can learn from,” she says, “but we also need to learn how to heal because many of us, including myself, may not have a positive experience because of the nature of the system that we’re in.”
So if you’re well-versed in dire birth outcomes for Black pregnant people and need to remember that joy and healing are part of your birthright, spend some time with generous folks who’ve shared their stories on the podcast. Birthright (available every other Wednesday on most podcast platforms) is a stunning and heartfelt reminder that, despite the disturbing statistics, many Black people are having the safe, supportive, and joyful birth experiences we deserve.