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The fact that Black women in the United States are three times more likely to die due to pregnancy related complications than white women has made a lot of headlines in the past couple of years. Beyoncé and Serena Williams have opened up about their own pregnancy complications. But the life-threatening disparity isn’t new. “We’ve been screaming about the disparities in maternal mortality [for years],” says Maddy Oden, founder of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation, who lost her pregnant daughter in 2001. “The way African American women and women of color are treated by this medical system is totally different than the way white women are treated.”
Oden is part of a group of loved ones affected by the Black maternal mortality crisis who have turned their grief into advocacy. Loved ones like Charles Johnson, who founded 4Kira4Moms after his wife died following a routine C-section in 2016. “I take every death personally because I live in this space, and I wake up every single day trying to make sure that other families don’t experience our nightmare,” he says. “I want to bring awareness to make people understand that these mother’s lives were important.”
We spoke to six partners, mothers, and friends about the personal cost of the Black maternal mortality crisis and how they’re fighting to make sure other families never know their pain. These are their stories, in their own words.
“She did everything right.”
Kira Dixon Johnson, 39, died April 13, 2016, after bleeding internally for more than 10 hours following a routine C-section. She left behind two sons.
When we walked into Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, the thought that Kira would not walk out and not be here to raise her boys never crossed my mind.
After Kira passed, people started reaching out to me with stories of near misses or other horrible birthing experiences. That’s when I began to do the research and was horrified to see that we were in the midst of a Black maternal mortality crisis. It was America’s dirty little secret. I had to do something. I owed it to Kira. I owed it to my sons.
I think Kira’s story humanized this issue in a manner it hadn’t been before. There unfortunately was a completely inaccurate stigma that women dying in childbirth were uneducated, didn’t have access to quality care, weren’t diligent about their prenatal care, or had underlying conditions. Kira’s case defied all of those narratives. She did everything right. She was in great health.
Our organization is focused on policy, advocacy, and providing grieving families with support and resources. I’m extremely proud that we were able to pass H.R. 1318, the first-ever federal legislation to help prevent women from dying in childbirth.
It hurts my heart that there’s a growing fraternity of men who have lost their wives this way, but I am so proud of the ones that have chosen to step up and advocate and fight for mothers.
— Charles Johnson, husband of Kira Dixon Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, Atlanta
“Motherhood should not be a death sentence.”
Dr. Shalon Irving, 36, died January 28, 2017, three weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Soleil. Irving was an epidemiologist at the CDC and researched how structural inequality affected health outcomes.
Maternal deaths are still being treated like private tragedies rather than a public health issue. No one wants to admit the way that systemic and structural racism contribute to the problem. Motherhood should not be a death sentence.
We said we had to do something because women are continuing to die. We know Shalon would have done something. She would have said, “This is going to stop on my watch.”
We want to put more advocates out there, educate our mothers more and empower them to push back on the system and say, “Look, I need help.” For African Americans, we face additional bias—if your voice gets a little bit higher than it normally is, all of a sudden you’re yelling and screaming. They say they have to get security because they’re afraid you’re going to go crazy. We can’t get angry because then you become the “angry Black woman,” and they ignore you. That’s the whole thing we have to fight against when we’re in those situations.
— Wanda Irving and Bianca Pryor, mother and best friend of Dr. Shalon Irving, founders of Dr. Shalon’s Maternal Action Project, Atlanta
“She was an amazing mother.”
Yolanda “Shiphrah” Kadima, 35, died July 27, 2020, three days after the C-section delivery of their twins. She leaves behind seven children, including her newborn twins.
Yolanda was an amazing mother. She was passionate about helping families return to the traditional ways of bringing children into the world and providing nourishment through breastfeeding.
I immediately knew I wanted to do something to keep her name and vision alive. I want to help promote and advocate for birthing centers and holistic birth to prevent this from ever happening to another family.
— Armand Kadima, husband of Yolanda “Shiphrah” Kadima, Atlanta
“She voiced her concerns.”
Amber Rose Isaac, 26, died on April 21, 2020, after an emergency C-section. She had tweeted on April 17 about her negative experiences at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
You think, This isn’t going to happen to us. Amber had been an advocate for birthing women, so we knew what to look out for, we knew about the statistics for Black maternal mortality. It did happen to us. It destroyed our family’s world.
Amber hadn’t seen a doctor in person since late February due to COVID-19. She complained of being tired and was often out of breath. She was due May 30, but after a blood test April 17, the hospital called the next morning. She needed to come in immediately for treatment because her platelet levels had decreased significantly. They started an induction, then called for a C-section because they said the baby wasn’t handling contractions well.
Because of her low platelet count, her blood was unable to clot. It was like water. As soon as they cut her open, she coded. Her heart stopped.
Amber didn’t deserve this. She was such a good person. She voiced her concerns. Her mother, who worked for 25 years at the same hospital, also spoke up.
I want our foundation to help offset the cost of insurance premiums or home births not covered by insurance. We’re also working on bringing a birthing center to the Bronx.
I visited Amber’s grave for the first time in early August. It was so hard—but it reminded me why I’m doing this.
— Bruce McIntyre, partner of Amber Rose Isaac, founder of the SaveArose Foundation, Bronx, New York; McIntyre is raising their son, Elias
“This shouldn’t have happened. But it continues to happen.”
Tatia Oden French, 32, and her baby daughter died in December 2001 during childbirth.
Tatia was past her due date. She was perfectly fine and so was the baby, but the doctor wanted to induce. Ten hours later, Tatia was gone. She and her daughter died after an emergency C-section.
I feel Tatia was treated differently because she was African American.
This shouldn’t have happened. And it continues to happen. That’s the reason I don’t stop. That’s what fuels me to keep going.
—Maddy Oden, mother of Tatia Oden French, founder of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation, Oakland, California; Oden became a doula in 2005 to help women have safer birthing experiences
Shannon Shelton Miller is a journalist who writes about education, parenting, culture and diversity, sports, health, and beauty. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN.com, Slate, InStyle, and the Huffington Post.