September 13, 2012
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga
September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month and various events have been scheduled in Los Angeles County to raise awareness of this issue amongst African Americans.
The matter of infant mortality – the death of a child before s/he reaches their first birthday – is a critical one within the African American community. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control Office of Minority Health, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) for African Americans nationally in 1990 was 19 per 1000; for every 1000 Black babies born that lived to the age of one year, there were 19 that did not. Figures from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s website show that the IMR for African Americans in 2006 – the most recent year shown – was 11.6, which is still 2-3 times higher than the local and national averages for white/Caucasian, Latino/a and Asian babies.
Rae Jones, executive director of Great Beginnings for Black Babies (GBBB) which was founded in 1990 to address Black infant mortality in Los Angeles County, says that pre-natal care is a large part of the organization’s work to address this crisis.
“We encourage healthy lifestyles [and abstaining from] tobacco, alcohol or drugs, before during and after pregnancy,” Jones said, as these are the kinds of behaviors associated with negative health outcomes for Black babies that can be modified.
As a means of “getting the word out,” the group is holding a day-long event, “Critical Condition – Mothers and Babies are Dying,” from 8 a.m. to noon, on Friday, Sept. 14, at The Ebell of Los Angeles, 743 S. Lucerne Blvd., near Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Sponsored in conjunction with other Black health organizations, GBBB and their network of community clinics, health centers and hospitals with pregnant and parenting women are hoping to reach a wide sphere of African American women.
“As the economy gets worse, we’ve seen a shift from destitute pregnant women to middle class women now experiencing infant mortality at higher rates than ever before due to ‘racism related stress’,” said Jones. She describes the phenomenon as Black women passing on the myriad of external pressures and stresses the mother may be going through to their unborn child. “We’ve known this [phenomenon was happening] as a community for awhile; we may have called it ‘Mother Wit’ back then, but now we have scientific data and the numbers bear out what is happening.”
According to one local midwife, some of those external pressures include the ways a woman actually gives birth.
Racha Tahani Lawler, a licensed midwife and the founder of the Community Birth Center in Inglewood, says that all women should have both “true and informed consent” – knowledge of all the options available to them – as well as “true and informed refusal” – freedom from punishment if they decline a particular option.
According to Lawler, an alarming number of women of all ethnicities and incomes routinely undergo unnecessary procedures in local hospitals such as C-sections (a ‘Caesarian section’ – where a baby is delivered via surgically cutting the woman’s stomach and uterus); Inductions (the woman is put into labor before the baby is ready); and not allowing women who have had C-sections in the past to have a vaginal birth (VBAC – Vaginal Birth After Caesarian).
Cesareanrates.com is a site that compiles the online reporting of Cesarean rates in the U.S. by hospitals and state departments of public health. The date lists rates by states as well as hospitals within the states. Data listed for 2010 shows the rate which certain hospitals perform C-sections as well as whether or not they allow VBAC procedures for women.
Calls to the hospitals listed were not returned by press time.
“If I’m told I need something, I need all of the information,” says Lawler. “Why I need a C-section and what are all of my options; why I need an Induction, and what are all of my options.” Lawler continued, “And if I don’t want a particular procedure, [the doctor/hospital] can’t call other doctors, or the head of OB-GYN (Obstetrics-Gynecology) or Pediatrics to bully me into having that procedure; [the doctor/hospital] can’t get a rush-warrant from a judge to revoke my parental rights because [they] feel that they can act in the better interest of the parent,” which Lawler says also routinely happens.
Lawler and dozens of other women participated in a national day of awareness this past Labor Day, sponsored by ImprovingBirth.Org, as part of an effort to “encourage and insist that all maternal healthcare providers practice evidence-based care.” The organization, which says it is comprised of “mothers and people who support mothers,” contends evidence-based maternity care – such as natural, vaginal birth – has been proven by reliable research to be beneficial to both babies and mothers and reduces various complications.
The women congregated in front of Cedars-Sinai hospital with signs and chants, said Lawler, “ … to make the communities aware and make the hospitals uncomfortable so they will see it is the moms that want evidence-based care; not just rogue hippy mamas or women trying to buck the system, but the everyday, Sallys, Jessicas, LaQuishas and Tanyas.”
As part of their outreach work to raise awareness of this issue and others, the Community Birth Center, located at 2242 W. Florence Ave., just West of Van Ness in Inglewood, is participating in the global launch of the film “Freedom for Birth: A Mothers’ Revolution,” on Sept. 20, at 6 pm. The film will be screened outdoors and will have a question-and-answer session immediately following. Lawler says the film looks at birth as a human rights issue around the world, and was created with the assistance of OBGYNs, academics, midwives, doulas, and others. The film also addresses the disparate treatment afforded to both midwives and the families that utilize midwives versus those that have births in a hospital setting.
“The protections that are afforded women in hospitals should be afforded everywhere – midwives have the best statistics, doctors have the worst; midwives are not supported, doctors are,” Lawler said.