by Tess Joseph
Five months into her pregnancy, Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) informed her doctor that she was in extreme pain; her doctor sent her home. One week later, Bush went into labor. During her May 6, 2021 congressional testimony, Bush describes the experience of having her doctor disbelieve her pain and the birth of her child, who weighed barely over a pound: “His ears were still in his head, his eyes were still fused shut, his fingers were smaller than rice, and his skin was translucent. A Black baby, translucent skin.” Bush’s testimony was an eloquent, painful recounting of her labor complications and interactions with racist medical care. But her individual story, while deeply personal, isn’t unique. Rather, it’s one example of the many devastating experiences shared by Black birthing people.
Recent years have brought more attention to the U.S. gestational mortality crisis, and a variety of articles have correctly noted that said crisis disproportionately affects Black birthing people. But the vast majority of articles employ gendered language to describe the crisis as one of maternal mortality largely impacting Black women. In so doing, they fail to accurately understand what the crisis is and who it affects. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate an issue without that information. If we focus only on Black cis-women, we ignore the vast expanse of Black people who can get pregnant and need accessible, quality gestational care. Language, in this context, can be a matter of life and death.
As Sloane Jett remarks, when “considering marginalized people’s bodily autonomy, we must question how we perceive whose lives are worth protecting, and who is allowed to safely make a family—an inquiry that extends far beyond white cisgender women.” Indeed, as Jett and I note, this inquiry extends far beyond Black cisgender women: there are Black, pregnancy-capable people who aren’t women. Many people, including some trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks, might have a uterus but don’t identify as a woman. They merit more than inclusive language, and beyond that, they merit anti-racist, anti-transphobic medical care. All Black birthing people deserve autonomy, protection, and safety.
We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation affirm that the ability to create a family, free from the violence of racism and transphobia, is fundamental to our human right to sexual freedom. We also know that there are many different ways to build a family, and that Black birthing people particularly face a gestational mortality crisis. Effective efforts to address such a crisis can’t be limited to ciscentric conceptions of pregnancy and birth. All Black birthing people matter. Their pregnancies matter and their experiences of labor and delivery matter. The health of their children, families, and communities matter. Their futures matter.
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