26-year-old Sha-Asia Semple died during an emergency C-section at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn last July. She was given an epidural and medication to induce labor. Family and friends claim something went wrong with the injection. Her death triggered protests over the racial disparity in maternal mortality.
In a statement, Woodhull says it's "committed to addressing the national crisis of high rates of maternal mortality, and we are undeterred in our mission to provide quality care for all New Yorkers.” The hospital declined to give a cause of death for Semple, citing privacy and confidentiality laws.
Statistics show that Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women in the U.S. Here in the city, the disparity is even greater. One study found that the maternal mortality rate is 12 times higher for Blacks than whites. And most of those deaths are preventable.
“Everything that I thought was standard practice, I had to fight for,” says Kimberly Seals-Allers, a maternal health advocate. She had her own traumatic birthing experience, one she still has trouble talking about.
"I was treated like an unwed Black woman with basic insurance, and that experience never left me," she said. "It shaped my entry into motherhood. It left me with such profound disappointment knowing that people were treated so differently than I had been."
Experts cite several reasons for this disparity, including bias in the healthcare system, underlying health conditions specific to Black mothers and unequal access to prenatal care.
Seals-Allers says she finally had enough after attending another funeral for a Black mother who died from pregnancy-related causes.
"What we want to do is stop trying to address this problem from the grave," she said. "I want Black women not to die at all."
In 2016, she came up with the “Irth” app, a Yelp-like platform for women of color to write reviews of their OB/GYNs, birthing hospitals and pediatricians. New moms share both good and bad experiences.
“We believe technology can be a tool for social change, and that we can use our experiences to bring accountability to this medical system and let other folks know where we are receiving good care and where we are not," she says.
It’s a goal shared by Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo, the founder of Fourth Phase, which provides new mothers with post-natal products to help in their physical and emotional recovery.
“What often happens is, mothers feel like they can’t advocate for themselves, especially women of color," she said. "I don’t want to come off as the aggressive Black woman, I don’t want to come off as the angry woman."
Advocates like Allers and Eyeson-Akiwowo hope that through increased awareness, change will come.
“I hope that we are no longer talking about Black maternal health rates and that we are at a place where Black women can go into health centers and receive equitable care,” Eyeson-Akiwowo said.