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BirthNet raises concern about childbirth peril among Capital Region minority women

BirthNet co-chair Nakia Tillman
BirthNet co-chair Nakia Tillman

Albany non-profit BirthNet held a forum this month highlighting what it calls a medical disparity. Activists say racial bias is deeply embedded in local maternal and infant health care systems.

Citing Albany County data, BirthNet of the Capital Region says Black and brown women in the area are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and their babies are five times more likely to die in their first year than white babies. In Arbor Hill the infant mortality rate for Black and brown babies jumps to seven times higher than the regional average for white babies.

“In Albany, it happens," BirthNet co-chair Nakia Tillman said. "We can no longer say, oh, ‘not my hospital, not this hospital.' "Yes. We have some of the worst statistics nationally. And I have to say that I think that racists do do us one justice, because they like to document their humanity, inhumanity. Because the fact that you we have it on record what you continuously do to black women. It's interesting, but we don't we don't think about that. They document our pain. So we have it in writing, you have it from our voices. But yet somehow we're still not believed. Now why is that? “

Tillman explained the dilemma faced by expectant mothers of color.

“Why is it if I walk into a hospital with my credentials, I get stopped. Why is it if a white woman comes in, you know, looking any way she wants to look, she can go right on in. She's not stopped," said Tillman. "These are the little things that we're talking about, that we see. And then if we speak up, we're angry. The little microaggressions, they call security on us. They escort us out, even when we're delivering our babies, if the nurse feels that we are being threatening to her while we're in pain, she can call it security. And they'll shut the delivery down and they'll kick us out of the hospital. They'll call CPS.”

Tillman and BirthNet board of directors co-chair Esther Patterson King shared what they called "horrific" second-hand local birth stories where maternal care given to mothers of color vastly differed from that given to white mothers. King, a birth worker for more than 20 years, says women of color deserve respectful maternal health care.

"I've read state statistics. And I was outraged but not shocked to see that Black women in New York states are four times as likely to die in childbirth as white women," Patterson King said. "Black babies right here in Arbor Hill are seven state again seven times more likely to die than white babies born in this city. There's something wrong with that. There is something wrong with that... There were many women who told them our stories, but wouldn't allow us to tell them in this forum, because they were afraid of retaliation, and said that they still have to see the doctors who they had the bad experience with. Because they didn't feel like they had any real choice. And that's a problem. These women have accepted the negative treatment they received at the norm and didn't and don't expect things to change. We are here tonight to raise expectations."

BirthNet is demanding that implicit bias trainings be held at local hospitals, taught by a BIPOC person with "a proven track record of effectiveness."

Albany Medical Center responded to a request for comment via email, saying in part its "Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology is currently engaged in the state-wide New York Birth Equity Improvement Project, which specifically looks at addressing structural factors including historical practices and policies and racism as contributing factors in birth outcomes in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities, and the role of healthcare in those outcomes."

St. Peter's also emailed a response, saying "we are always striving to do better," while acknowledging "racism as a public health crisis and a root cause of health inequity." St. Peter's says it had representatives present at BirthNet's forum in order to learn more "as part of a greater regional effort to identify and eliminate inequities and injustices in our communities."

Here is a link to the full forum.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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