As a Black woman and mother of five, reproductive health, and more accurately, health, has been top of mind for most of my life. Now, as the President and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women, it’s an issue I think about not just through the lens of my own family, but in terms of all the women and girls across the Chicago region.
For some, when they think about the work of Planned Parenthood and reproductive health, they think of access to a safe and legal abortion. While that’s part of it (and, let me be clear, a necessary and fundamental part), reproductive health is more comprehensive. In reality, people of all gender identities should be informed of and have access to safe, effective, and affordable contraception; as well as access to gender-affirming health care services and women should have the ability to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth with the best chance of having a healthy infant.
Unfortunately, for many Black women who choose to become parents, the ability to have a safe pregnancy and healthy infant is not possible. The pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women with at least a college degree was 5.2 times that of their white counterparts from data collected between 2007 – 2016, highlighting the racial disparities in maternal health. What’s more, many of the pregnancy complications that caused these deaths could have been prevented.
We’ve heard stories shared by Beyoncé and Serena Williams about surviving potentially fatal pregnancy complications. These are both accomplished and successful women with the means to access quality health care. What can we say about women without the same type of access?
These issues are not new. In 1994, a group of Black women joined forces to share their discontent with the women’s rights movement. They called themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and focused on an intersectional approach to women’s health care. They published full-page ads addressed to members of Congress in The Washington Post and Roll Call. Their argument? Reproductive health was not only about abortion access, but also a ‘life and death issue for many Black women.’
As we look for solutions today, providing access to pre- and postnatal care will make a difference, as well as educating staff on the needs of Black women. In a bold move to support maternal health, Illinois recently passed several laws aimed at addressing high maternal death rates, implicit bias in healthcare, and racial disparities. This includes a new requirement for medical and health care facility staff to participate in annual training addressing the pregnant and postpartum care of Black women and their infants.
Women, Black women, should feel safe anywhere, especially when sharing their concerns with their doctors. And, when they do so, they must be heard and believed.
I bring my lived experience as a Black woman and mother wherever I go. It’s hard for me to learn about these disparities and not feel personally invested in ensuring all women have access to the health care they need. I applaud the work Planned Parenthood of Illinois is doing to advance this issue, but there’s more to be done. Let’s all commit to using our privilege, our voice, to lift up those not always heard. Join us and let’s get to work.
Felicia Davis is the President and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women.