In November 2020 the House of Lords and the House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights published the report, “Black People, Racism and Human Rights“. The report was in response to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black people, the killing of George Floyd in the United States and Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, and served to highlight the inequality that exists in Britain.
While the report looked at everything from how Black people feel they are treated by police to the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, one of the most shocking takeaways highlighted the stark reality for Black mothers in the UK: “The death rate for Black women in childbirth is five times higher than for white women. The NHS acknowledge and regret this disparity but have no target to end it. The government must introduce a target to end the disparity in maternal mortality between Black women and white women.”
Channel 4’s latest Dispatches episode, The Black Maternity Scandal, which aired on Monday and is presented by mother of three Rochelle Humes, takes us through the shocking reality of maternal deaths and near-deaths of Black women in the UK.
We meet Naomi, whose sister Natalie passed away aged 35, shortly after giving birth, from a rare condition called amniotic fluid embolism (AFE). “I got a call from Tim [Natalie’s husband], saying ‘Nay, come to the hospital, there’s something wrong with Nats. Just come now.’”
Naomi continues: “All the doctors came in and I knew. I felt her leave, and then they told us. What do you do?”
Despite being identified as one of the leading causes of direct maternal death globally, medical professionals aren’t clear what causes AFE or how to prevent it. “There is a lack of support for brown, Black and marginalised communities,” Naomi tells Rochelle. “The system isn’t built for that support. The data doesn’t lie. She’s [Natalie] part of those statistics now, so there’s something going on.”
Jade, 31, from Essex and a mother of three, had a near-death experience following an elective Caesarean to deliver her twin daughters. Despite her husband raising the alarm several times with doctors, and Jade’s complaints of severe back and abdominal pain, it was 12 hours before she was given a scan which revealed she had litres of blood in her stomach following her C-section. “Was I not listened to because of the colour of my skin?” she asks Rochelle. “That cuts deep. That cuts really deep.”
Some Black women are hiring private midwives to improve their experience, like Kadie, who experienced a traumatic first birth. “So I get into hospital and I was only 3cm [dilated] but then after a while the doctor came in and just basically said that your risk of infection is increasing, we’re going to induce you, and there was a bit of a battle between my midwife and what the doctor was saying but there was, kind of, no discussion. They were kind of like, ‘This is what’s happening’.”
The documentary also questions why Black women encounter such bad experiences which lead to the unequal outcomes we see today, citing a 2016 American study which found that some US medics believe Black people can bear more pain than white people.
According to the latest data, Asian women are nearly twice as likely as white women to suffer maternal death during pregnancy and up to six weeks after birth, mixed ethnicity women are three times as likely and Black women are just over four times as likely.
Nadine Dorries, the minister for maternity, issued a statement at the end of the documentary. “The colour of a woman’s skin should have no impact on her baby’s health. I am absolutely committed to tackling disparities and making sure all women get the right support and best possible maternity care. I have launched an oversight group to monitor how the health service is tackling maternal inequalities.”
Dispatches: The Black Maternity Scandal is available on demand on All 4.