Kira Johnson after giving birth to her son, Langston Johnson.

Kira Johnson after giving birth to her son, Langston Johnson. 

Kira Johnson, 39, was a successful entrepreneur who spoke five languages. 

She was a mother of a little boy and was looking forward to welcoming her second son into the world with her husband. Sadly, during the delivery of her second child, a scheduled cesarean section, Johnson’s bladder was nicked and she suffered internal bleeding. Twelve hours after her son, Langston Johnson, was born Johnson passed away. During the 12 hours between when her son was born and when Johnson passed, she and her husband pleaded for help from the staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but their concerns weren’t followed up with sufficient action. Blood was reported to be in her urine at 5 p.m., but an OBGYN wasn’t notified to help until after 11 p.m. Johnson’s husband, Charles Johnson IV, pleaded with staff noticing that the concerns of his wife were being ignored, to which he was told, “Sir, your wife is not a priority right now.” At 12:30 a.m. Kira Johnson was taken back into surgery, and by 2:22 a.m. she was pronounced dead. The internal bleeding caused her body to go into hemorrhagic shock.  

The bigger picture

The heartbreaking story of the Johnson family is merely one of 700 that takes place every year in America. Despite this growing trend in the United States, the World Health Organization reports that the majority of birth-related deaths are preventable. For Black women, the chances of dying during childbirth are three to five times higher than any other group of people in the U.S. and U.K. Black infants are two to three times more likely to die during childbirth or in the first year of life than any other group of people. America has more infant and maternal deaths of any industrialized country in the world, and it’s not due to a lack of qualified doctors, state of the art medical and birthing facilities, or a trend in health deficiencies of birth mothers. The primary factor that indicates how high a woman’s chances of passing away during childbirth is race, with non-Hispanic African-American women being the most at risk regardless of socioeconomic status and pre-existing medical conditions. Black infant and maternal mortality is a public health crisis created by implicitly and explicitly biased medical professionals and institutions failing to listen to, understand, and acknowledge the concerns of their Black female patients in the same way that they treat non-black patients. The American Public Health Association (APHA) declares this is a violation of several human rights including, “the mother’s right to life, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to health and quality health care.” APHA recommends these violations of human rights be addressed by federal, state and local government entities as well as their partners.  

How maternal health could be impacted by democratic presidential candidates

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has pledged to address the maternal health crisis within the first 100 days of her possible presidency by tackling the shortage of health care professionals and by developing the “best models of care to address racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality.” Klobuchar is also a co-sponsor of the Maternal CARE Act bill introduced by Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). This bill addresses racial bias in the medical system, introduces bias training to those coming into the medical field, and allocates over $125 million across 10 states to implement programs that reduce maternal health disparities.  

Senator Bernie Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Maternal CARE Act bill and the MOMMA Act created by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL). The MOMMA Act (Mothers and Offspring Mortality and Morbidity Awareness) has a five prong approach that establishes national obstetric procedures, standardizes reporting procedures for maternal death, improves culturally competent care, expands Medicare coverage to cover postpartum care up to a year, and shares best practices for mortality review boards.   

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) attended the She the Peopleforum where she proposed financial incentives to hospitals that reduce Black maternal mortality rates and her plans to penalize those who do not. After receiving criticism about the potential impact of financial penalties on low-quality hospitals that may already be under-resourced Warren reformed her plan to be reflective of her supporters’ concerns and penned an op-ed to Essence Magazine. Her op-ed included plans to diversify the medical field by pushing workforce diversity in hospitals to be reflective of the communities they serve, demanding more from low-performing hospitals, investing more in high-performing hospitals, and providing space for families who have been directly impacted by infant and maternal mortality to have a seat at the table where they can “call the shots” on what’s happening to Black mothers and children in their communities.  Warren has also expressed her support of the Maternal CARE Act proposed by Harris and the MOMMIES Act (Maximizing Outcomes for Moms through Medicaid Improvement and Enhancement of Services) proposed by Sen. Cory Booker to expand Medicaid support to cover a mother’s postpartum recovery for the first 365 days after giving birth.  

The Bottom Line

The Black infant and maternal health crisis has been on the rise for the pasts 60 years. The primary cause of this crisis in America is racial bias. Dr. Neel Shah, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School shared with the Poynter Institute, “Clinicians are trained to profile people by race – nearly every exam question in medical school tells you the race of the patient and reinforces race-based associations.” 

While there are many politicians, interest groups, and community advocates doing the work to raise awareness and generate resources towards the growing crisis, it’s ultimately going to take federal and state policy changes to overhaul a financially lucrative yet socially inept medical system. According to figures from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, maintenance of the status quo, and a failure to address this growing crisis over the next four years will lead to the death of more than 2,800 birth mothers and 88,000 babies, the majority of them Black. These figures are calculated under the assumption that the rates of Black infant and maternal mortality will not increase at the rate that was reported in 2017. Should these figures continue to rise there will inevitably be even more deaths that disproportionately impact the Black community.  

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