How the Healthcare System Fails Black Women

To put it simply, being a Black woman in America is hard. We experience misogynoir that leaves us feeling like no one has our back. The world ignores our struggles because we’re meant to be strong. On top of all that, we often aren’t listened to by those meant to help us.

Black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women in the United States. In a country that prides itself on equal opportunity and treatment, how do these disparities exist in 2020? Medical racism has a history that stretches back to slavery. 

Believers of scientific racism spread the idea that Black people didn’t feel pain the way white people did.

This dangerous misconception allowed white people to justify the inhumane treatment of enslaved African-Americans.

For decades, doctors experimented on enslaved black women to advance medical technology and knowledge. James Marion Sims, who is often cited as the “Father of modern gynecology,” conducted his experiments without anesthesia on enslaved Black women during the 1840s. These women didn’t even give consent for Sims’ intrusive experiments. He made many medical advances, but we should not forget that it was at the expense of Black female bodies.

White doctors continued to exploit Black patients for medical research well into the 20th century. Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman is an example. A white doctor sampled her unique cells without her consent. Her cells have gone on to help cure diseases like leukemia and polio. Yet, Henrietta still died in 1951 at the only hospital in her area that would treat Black patients. Her family wasn’t aware that her cells were still being used until 1975.

Many professionals denounced scientific racism after World War II. Still, the remnants of the ideology continue to impact the medical field today. 

BIAS, even if implicit, is dangerous.

Bias leads to doctors underemphasizing the severity of Black patients’ pain, leading to less medicine prescribed. A  2016 study found that 40% of participating first-year medical students believed that Black people had thicker skin than white people. The same study found that 14% of second-year medical students falsely thought that Black peoples’ nerve endings were less sensitive compared to white peoples’.

The “strong black woman” stereotype could play into medical professionals’ implicit biases as well, especially in regard to mental health. Media representation has an impact on real lives. 

Lack of access to healthcare resources also makes Black women more susceptible to certain diseases. For example, white women are more likely than Black women to get breast cancer in the United States, yet Black women are more likely to die from the disease. 

In my April post about COVID-19, I outlined many reasons why Black people were dying at disproportionate rates from the disease. Those reasons included the wealth gap between Black and white Americans, housing discrimination that segregates wealthy neighborhoods, and lack of communication within Black communities about disease prevention. All of the above impact Black women in their day-to-day medical care outside of the pandemic, too. 

Health disparities, and the reasons behind them, are not unique to the United States. In the UK the discrepancy between medical treatment for white women and black women is even greater; Black women are five times as likely to die during pregnancy.  Nicole Thea, a Youtube creator from the United Kingdom, died 8 months into her pregnancy on July 11th. Nicole’s death helped prompt a discussion on why Black women received such different maternal care than white women. 

Other celebrities, such as tennis player Serena Williams, have helped reveal how the pain of Black women isn’t respected. After her baby was born, Serena told a nurse that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism. Though Serena asked the nurse for “a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin,” the nurse dismissed her and told her that her pain medication was making her confused. Serena had to continue to advocate for herself, and eventually she was given treatment. 

If a wealthy, internationally known athlete like Williams wasn’t treated well by her doctors, one can only imagine what millions of Black expectant mothers are enduring in hospitals across America.

Medical professionals need to acknowledge the suffering of Black women. Our melanin does not cause us to feel less pain. #ProtectBlackWomen isn’t only relevant when a Black woman has died, it’s relevant when we’re living, too. We are human– deserving of respect, treatment, and understanding.