LOS ANGELES — The statistics are startling: Nationally, the death rate for black babies who die in infancy is twice as high as for white babies and more than 4,000 black babies die before their first birthday.
In Los Angeles County, the rate is three times higher.
Black infant mortality was the topic of discussion on Jan. 24 when KPCC radio reporter Priska Neely moderated a seminar titled “Racism and Reproduction: What Black Women Need to Know” at the LA84 Foundation.
Joining the panel discussion were midwife Debbie Allen, owner of Tribe Midwifery; Raena Granberry, maternal child advocate and program manager with Black Women for Wellness; and Dr. La Tanya Hines, OB-GYN at Kaiser Permanente hospital.
Neely said she became concerned about the high rate of black infant mortality after members of her own family experienced several infant deaths.
“Some black babies are born too early or too small,” Neely said, adding that the problem has existed for decades. “With pre-natal care, the statistics are improved, but the gap is still there.”
Neely said the reasons for black infant mortality lie in chronic stress and institutionalized racism that black women face throughout their lives.
“Since we never know when we’ll face racism — there’s a fight, flight and freeze reaction which leads to deterioration as black women age,” she added.
Granberry, the mother of two, said her first pregnancy turned out to be a nightmare.
“I wanted the best care for my baby, so I went to a clinic in Beverly Hills,” she said. “But I realized that I was experiencing spotting and pain. I would tell the doctor, ‘Something’s not right,’ but I was being turned in and out of his office within five minutes. The doctor insisted that I was fine and not to worry.
“At the time, I felt that I was being discriminated against and ignored. Then I went home and my water broke.”
Granberry sadly remembers the day her child was born.
“My baby was born stillborn with no lungs,” she said, adding that the trauma of losing her baby made her spiral into a deep depression.
The Inglewood resident said she felt alone in her grief.
“Then I started hearing stories,” she said. “Aunts, cousins, friends and relatives started telling me that they had lost babies, too. I didn’t know that I was part of a larger statistic.”
In an effort to find counseling for her grief, Granberry searched the internet.
“I looked for support groups and I connected with Great Beginnings for Black Babies in Inglewood,” she said.
Granberry went on to birth two more children. “But this time I had support and advocates watching over me,” she said.
Allen, a midwife, said she went to an obstetrician when she first became pregnant 22 years ago.
“We talked about the experiences I wanted for my births, but a lot of things happened that weren’t on my birth plan,” she said. “It lacked the tenderness and intimacy that I believe is the core of childbirth. My births didn’t feel special and sacred.
“When I became pregnant again, birthing in a hospital did not sit well with my spirit,” Allen said. “My second and third sons were born at home surrounded by family, friends and midwives. It was a powerful and beautiful experience.”
So beautiful that Allen started studying midwifery in 2008 and is now a licensed midwife practitioner.
“If you have a provider and something doesn’t feel right, change it,” Allen said. “You don’t have to accept the care that you get. You should not have to fight for your baby. You have the right to say, ‘I want to speak to someone else.’ I know that it’s incredibly hard to do when you are not well, but you must if you feel you are not getting the right answers.”
Getting proper care is important for pregnant women, according to Hines, an ob-gyn for Kaiser Permanente
“One in 10 black women said that they have not been treated right during their pregnancy,” Hines said. “This is a problem because it deals with institutionalized racism. There is bias in our medical institution and there needs to be diversity of thought, belief, education and skill.
“If your physician is listening and you don’t agree, don’t move until you get the answers you need because you know your body better than I do,” Hines said.
Pausing, she added, “Make sure you ask for more access to pre-natal care because it’s a privilege, not a right.”
Allen said that she pays particular attention to the pregnant women who put their trust in her.
“I’ll ask them, ‘Why are you coming into my office looking stressed today?’ We just can’t look at people with just a clinical approach. I help them to eliminate the stress. Walking around in a black body is amazing, but it also can be stressful.”
Allen said that being a midwife is extremely rewarding and relieves a lot of anxiety in her patients.
“We discuss what works for their family. They trust me.”
Audience member Sierra Smith observed, “I think hospitals should be accountable for disclosing their record of birth disparities so that women can look at the statistics and see what a hospital’s infant mortality rates are.”
Despite the grim statistics for black babies, efforts are being made to close the gap.
The Los Angeles Department of Public Health announced a plan to reduce the disparity by 30 percent in the next five years by providing implicit bias training for the 100,000 L.A. County employees and providing more funding to community organizations involved in black women’s health initiatives.
Hines said that state Sen. Holly Mitchell recently secured $8 million in funding for black infant mortality programs.
Granberry advised pregnant women to build a “sister circle” of friends, family and other pregnant women to help them through their pregnancy.
“Sister circles are so important,” she said. “Members can explain things and help to bring you comfort.”
By Shirley Hawkins