Black Birthing People Must Feel Empowered to Choose Doctors Who Support Them—Their Lives Depend on It

Both Aftershock protagonist Shawnee Benton Gibson and doula Chanel Portia-Albert say it is crucial that parents-to-be walk away from providers who do not support them.

Photo: Courtesy of Onyx Collective

Despite being one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, the United States is the only developed country in the world where the maternal mortality rate increased since 1990. Blood clots, hypertension, and blood loss are the three leading causes of this phenomenon, but a panel of experts is still unsure of why this is happening. For Black women, the urge for more research and solutions is crucial, as they are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes and five times more likely to die from cardiomyopathy and blood pressure disorders than their white counterparts. Factors such as discriminatory practices in healthcare, health insurance coverage gaps, racism, and systemic barriers add to the disproportionate rate at which Black women are affected.

Aftershock, a Hulu documentary and previous winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival, follows the journey of two families after the preventable deaths of their relatives from childbirth complications. In October of 2019, after expressing symptoms like discomfort and difficulty breathing to healthcare professionals, only to be ignored, Shamony Gibson passed 13 days postpartum from a pulmonary embolism. She left behind her partner and two children. Her mother, Shawnee Benton-Gibson, a licensed practitioner, has since then continued to seek justice through actions aimed at legislation for her daughter and others like her, speaking out about maternal health, birth equity, and reproductive justice.

"The film is about hope. Even though my daughter's story, Shamony's story, and Amber's story, is about their death and the loss of life that will never be restored, it's about the opportunity to choose," Benton-Gibson states in an interview with Kindred by Parents. "Knowing that you have a choice, you can birth at home, you can birth at the hospital-because hospitals serve a purpose- you can birth at a birthing center, and everything in between is a powerful offering for the folks to see."

These options include facilities and programs like birthing centers and doulas, which have actually improved the outcomes of Black birthing people and their babies, data shows. Doulas can serve as advocates for pregnant people, ensuring that their voices are heard and needs are met. They can also encourage expectant parents to facilitate their own birthing plans tailored specifically to how the parents would like their birthing experience to go. Doulas can also assist during postpartum, a stage in which birthing people can still encounter complications.

Benton-Gibson emphasizes this fact, saying, "What's also important to know is that we're not out of the woods after we give birth. That up to 12 months after we give birth, no matter how we identify, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our family covering, all of that, you can still die from cardiomyopathy. You can have post-eclampsia. You can end up with postpartum depression and psychosis and take your own life. You can have a pulmonary embolism like my daughter—all of those things can happen to you."

Chanel Portia-Albert

We really have to work towards centering ourselves and affirming that we're experts in our care and that how you feel is valid. If one person isn't listening to you, then find someone else who will.

— Chanel Portia-Albert

Benton-Gibson believes educating those around us on both pregnancy and the postpartum process is a critical factor that can improve the chances of a healthier term and postpartum experience for all involved. "The education will help you be hypervigilant," she says, "which is required these days so that you don't end up succumbing to that. And the people around you are also educated and say, 'I see that you're out of breath,' or 'I experienced you as not being yourself,' or 'You're sleeping for extended periods of time.'"

Large organizations, like Baby Dove, are also dedicated to improving the overall well-being and birthing experiences of Black women. In collaboration with Chanel Portia-Albert, a doula and birth, and reproductive justice advocate, Baby Dove is launching #DearDoula, a content series that will provide doula-centered information and advice to birthing people.

Portia-Albert is also the founder of Ancient Song, an organization that emphasizes evidence-based doula care, training, and advocacy to citizens of New York and northern New Jersey, and cofounder of JustBirth Space, a website that furnishes free support on navigating pregnancy and postpartum.

"Dear Doula is an informative series that's geared to give more educational resources and easier access and information to Black moms and birthing parents. It's an opportunity for the community to have a broader scope and greater reach for information to be put out," Portia-Albert says. "As advocates, our hope is that our voice is being heard and that people are getting the necessary information that they need to make an informed decision about their care. Having Baby Dove as a partner definitely amplifies that even more. It gives us a broader reach to speak to the community in meaningful ways."

Baby Dove is also doubling its investment in the Black Birth Equity fund for a total of $500,000. The fund distributes funds to expecting Black mothers for access to doula services. Having awarded grants to over 200 moms since its creation in August 2021, the Black Birth Equity fund hopes to also double that amount by the end of 2022.

In addition to the fund, Baby Dove is also the sponsor of the 2022 Black Maternal Health Conference, providing a space for doulas, healthcare professionals and providers, and educators to collaborate on improving the health of Black mothers and birthing people. Portia-Albert appreciates these efforts, saying that "it's an opportunity for folks who probably wouldn't be in the same room at the same time to be there."

Both Benton-Gibson and Portia-Albert highlight the importance of advocacy as a significant factor in supporting expecting and postpartum birthing people. "The thing that I want mothers, those who identify as women, and birthing people, people with wombs that don't identify as women, to be able to see is that we have a choice," Benton-Gibson stated.

Understanding your body, noticing changes during pregnancy or after birth, and having the confidence to speak about those changes can accelerate the process of getting help. Portia-Albert feels that "We really have to work towards centering ourselves and affirming that we're experts in our care and that how you feel is valid. If one person isn't listening to you, then find someone else who will."

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