Nicole Thea: Black Women, Pregnancy and Childbirth
Nicole Thea’s death in July sparked a huge social media discussion into answering why black women are more at risk of dying during Childbirth.
Nicole Thea, a successful, talented, pregnant 24-year-old black woman with over a hundred thousand subscribers on YouTube. Nicole, along with her baby Reign, suddenly died from complications with her pregnancy in July. Her sudden death sent shockwaves throughout social media among black people, not only in the UK but also in the US. Nicole’s death sparked a discussion on social media into why Black women are more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts in the UK and US. This devasting event has stayed with me since July. It boggles my mind that during the most unprecedented pandemic in our lifetimes, Nicole didn't die due to COVID but her pregnancy.
In the UK, a study conducted by MBRRACE concluded that black women were five times more likely to die during childbirth. In the US, from a study conducted by the CDC, black women were 4 to 5 times likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than their white counterparts. These alarming statistics have propelled the problem of a high mortality rate among Black women in pregnancy as a prominent issue among black communities in the UK and US.
The stories of black women, like Nicole Thea, have echoed these alarming statistics. Both Serena Williams and Beyoncé have shared that they too have dealt with life-threatening complications during their pregnancy and childbirth.
In a similar case to Nicole Thea’s, Sha-Asia Washington. A 26-year-old black woman in New York, died from Cardiac Arrest after being induced into labour on 2nd July. After an emergency C-Section, her baby survived.
Lifestyle publication Black Ballad along with the Huffington Post, have published several stories from Black women on Racism in the UK’s Health system, recalling discrimination, microaggressions and substandard care during pregnancy.
The co-founder of Black Ballad Tobi Oredein recalled an experience were her midwife referred to her husband as her ‘baby daddy’. ‘It felt like a very racially charged stereotype to say to a young Black couple,’ Tobi described.
In another story said to Black Ballad, a young 19-year-old black woman suffered a miscarriage with her first pregnancy. The nurse told her after her first scan ‘Yeah, the baby is gone so you can go and enjoy your life now,’ she received no advice or consolation.’
Medical Racism is primarily seen, by black women, as one of the primary reasons in explaining the high disproportionate death rate in the UK and US.
In the UK, despite high mortality rates, there hasn’t been a substantial amount of research into detailing the level of medical Racism and its impact on the high mortality rate of black women in pregnancy and childbirth. There’s no logical reason why there have been no significant scientific studies in researching the cause of high mortality rates. The lack of answers is creating an undeniable fear among black women of pregnancy and childbirth that has not been quelled or adequately addressed by the UK government or NHS.
Actress Jodie Turner-Smith told Vogue UK that she ‘decided on a home birth, because of concerns about negative birth outcomes for Black women in America’, outcomes which she described as ‘systematic racism’.
Though Medical Racism is not widely recognised or studied in the UK, Historians have documented Medical Racism as being a long-standing issue in the UK Healthcare system.
Helen Jones writes in her book ‘Health and Society in Twentieth-century Britain 1945–68’
It has been argued that white male doctors were preoccupied with black women limiting the size of their families, and indifferent to those health issues of greatest concern to black women. Many doctors persuaded black women to accept contraceptives which carried a lower risk of pregnancy, but a higher risk to their health and abortions were offered with unseemly haste
It’s plausible to conclude that such medical Racism described has persisted in the UK, further validating the conclusions of black women that medical Racism is the cause of the high mortality rates.
The US, unsurprisingly, has more substantial studies on medical Racism than the UK. In studies conducted by Princeton University, they concluded that ‘many white medical students and residents hold beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, many of which are false and fantastical in nature, and that these false beliefs are related to racial bias in pain perception.’ For example, Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than white people’s blood.
White medical students and residents who endorsed false beliefs showed racial bias in the accuracy of their pain treatment recommendations [those] who endorsed more of these beliefs reported that a black (vs. white) target patient would feel less pain and they were less accurate in their treatment recommendations for the black (vs. white) patient.
Again, this study echoes the countless stories of black women detailing a lack of care and attention from medical professionals during pregnancy and childbirth. Such a study commenced in the UK could have a dramatic impact on dealing with and spreading awareness of Medical Racism. The disparity of research between the US and UK on medical Racism falls right in line with the popular discourse among Black Brits that the UK has an inadequate sense and education of Racism compared to the US. It's frustrating the UK’s reluctance to actively acknowledge the large role they played in cultivating Racism in history, accurately explaining why the UK does not recognise the severity of Medical Racism.
In the end, Nicole Thea’s family have likely received Nicole’s death certificate, inscribed with a crude cause of death devoid of context, failures, mishaps detailing how and why Nicole joined the long list of black women who died during pregnancy and childbirth. Discussions are maybe taking place trying to answer the hows and whys, knowing they’ll never get those answers.
Black women in the UK have been fighting for their concerns to be seen and addressed. In response to a recent petition the UK government has pledged to ‘funding a NIHR Policy Research Unit in Maternal and Neonatal Health and Care study into factors associated with the higher risk of maternal death for Black and South Asian women.’
Committed to [an] implementation of an enhanced and targeted continuity of carer model for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women, as well as for women from the most deprived areas.