The revelation that Olympic gold medalist track star Tori Bowie died following complications from being in labor during childbirth draws attention to the ongoing Black maternal health crisis.
Bowie died last month at 32, but the official cause of her death was not announced until this week. Before Monday, the only details released about Bowie’s death was how she was found dead in her Florida home.
But according to an autopsy performed by the Orange County Medical Examiner Office, Bowie was about eight months pregnant with a “well-developed fetus” when she was found dead, USA Today reported.
Bowie’s death could have been brought on by a condition called eclampsia, officials have speculated. Eclampsia is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a complication of pregnancy” that “usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had previously been in the standard range.” Notably, it can be deadly if left untreated. Doctors routinely recommend delivering the baby early.
However, the Orange County Medical Examiner Office ruled that Bowie died of natural causes.
The Black maternal health crisis
While the autopsy report says one thing, other data suggests that Bowie was yet the latest Black woman to succumb to the Black maternal health crisis, which is being attributed to a growing number of deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Black women dominate the maternal mortality rate with “significantly higher than rates for White and Hispanic women,” citing statistics from 2021. The disparity has nothing to do with education or socio-economic levels.
It is unclear whether Bowie was being treated by a doctor for her pregnancy, but experts say the medical system is no sure bet for protecting Black women.
“Black women face disrespect, abuse, and mistreatment in facility-based settings like hospitals, at a much higher rate than other people of color, particularly, more so than white women,” Breana Lipscomb, senior advisor for Maternal Health & Rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told NewsOne in an interview last year. “We have to make sure that they are receiving safe and respectful care when they walk into a hospital.”
The distressing numbers haven’t increased the urgency to adequately address the racial discrepancy, advocates like Jazmin Rivera have long said.
While the fine-print details of Bowie’s death were not immediately provided, Rivera – the managing director of programs, monitoring & evaluation at BRICK Education Network, a charter management organization based in New Jersey that invests in children and their caregivers – said in an exclusive op-ed for NewsOne that Black pregnant women typically have “minimal support” and lack “a flock of knowledgeable, supportive women on deck to help us navigate the challenges of parenthood.”
Solving the Black maternal health crisis
Florida Congresswoman Kathy Castor earlier this month sounded the alarm about the Black maternal health crisis and said she was determined to improve health outcomes for Black mothers and babies.
“It is unacceptable that Black mothers are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than White mothers, due largely to health and social disparities,” Castor said while announcing a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to confront the Black maternal health crisis. “Evara Health has been on the forefront of working together to ensure that moms and babies across Tampa Bay get the care they need, improve health outcomes, confront racial disparities in maternal care and make sure children and their mothers are healthy and have every opportunity to thrive. This significant grant funding will support Evara’s innovative work in improving the lives of many of our neighbors.”
The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 contains 12 separate bills that propose certain policies that may have served Bowie well during her pregnancy, including one to expand telehealth, which is the electronic dissemination of health-related services and information.
“At the heart of these investments is the principle that in America every family has the right to thrive, a principle that begins with a safe and healthy pregnancy and birth,” Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, one of the Momnibus Act’s sponsors, said about the proposed legislation.
Reforming the healthcare system to prioritize Black maternal health is another possible solution.
One of those potential reforms is increasing access to doulas, who play similar roles to midwives while also offering emotional and physical support to mothers and centering Black mothers and pregnant people. Doulas also “help individuals advocate for themselves during their birthing experience to connect them to resources so they can make informed decisions about their care,” maternal health advocate Chanel Porchia-Albert told NewsOne in a Q&A about Black maternal health.