Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight for Racial Equality in Health Care

5 min read

Every third Monday in January, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day to honor and remember his fight for equality. Today, women of color may be victims of discrimination during childbirth. This racial bias can result in medical negligence and malpractice, causing birth injuries that can affect both the mother and child. Learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the discrimination that still affects mothers today.

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated on Jan 17. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a famous civil rights activist who fought for racial equality from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in human rights for all and worked tirelessly to give a voice to victims of segregation.

Dr. King’s brave leadership during the civil rights movement led to pivotal events that sparked important change to eliminate racial disparities in society.

Martin Luther King Jr. began the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end the racial segregation on public buses in 1955. His leadership in this movement led to equality on the public transportation system and his efforts gained attention from all over the world.

In 1963, Dr. King led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with 20,000 protestors to advocate for a better and more inclusive civil rights bill. Here, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Washington Monument.

The accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. played an important role in American history and the fight for equality for decades to come. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Americans celebrate and emulate Dr. King’s values to continue to fight for civil rights.

Despite the tireless efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, racial disparity is still present today.

Discrimination can be still seen at work, school, and even in the delivery room. The Birth Injury Justice Center stands with the rest of the nation in honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, and in particular the ways in which health care inequality still impacts women and mothers — and what we can all do to start demanding change.

What Is Discrimination in the Delivery Room?

There are many instances when an individual feels they are not getting the best quality of care because they are being discriminated against due to their race. Discrimination during childbirth can present itself through explicit bias and implicit bias.

According to the National Center for Cultural Competence, explicit bias is “characterized by overt negative behavior that can be expressed through physical and verbal harassment or through more subtle means such as exclusion.” Explicit bias occurs when a healthcare worker consciously discriminates against an individual.

Implicit bias can also occur in the delivery room. According to Dr. Samuel L. Gaertner of the University of Delaware and Dr. John F. Dovidio of Yale University, implicit bias occurs when “people may hold negative unconscious or automatic feelings and beliefs about others that can differ from their conscious attitudes.”

Both of these phenomena can be prevalent in maternity ward settings. Whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, any discrimination during childbirth can be a traumatic experience for women of color and their children and may cause lifelong harm.

Potential Effects of Discrimination During Childbirth

According to the Center for American Progress, there are several social determinants for health that “affect the health and quality of life of people in a given environment.” These social determinants include a mother’s income level, education, and socio-economic status. These factors may impede the quality of care given by medical staff.

Discrimination during childbirth can lead to medical negligence by a health care team. For example, racial bias can cause doctors and nurses to purposely give improper care to a mother and her child before, during, and/or after birth.

Forms of medical negligence include:

  • Failure to monitor the baby’s heartbeat and detect distress
  • Failure to perform an emergency C-section when needed
  • Misuse of birthing tools such as vacuum extractors or forceps
  • Failure to prevent and control tearing and hemorrhaging in the mother
  • Exerting too much force to pull or twist babies out of the birth canal
  • Failure to monitor the baby’s oxygen levels

These forms of medical malpractice can leave the mother and child with debilitating birth injuries, and sometimes even result in death.

Injuries to the childInjuries to the mother
Cerebral palsyDamaged organs
Erb's palsySevere blood loss
KernicterusDangerously high or low blood pressure
Brain injuriesSevere tears

Mothers may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder from their traumatic childbirth, especially if they experienced discrimination.

Statistics on Mortality Rates & Racism Against African-American Mothers

There is a significant gap in African-American infant mortality rates compared to other races and ethnicities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the infant mortality rate for Non-Hispanic Black children was 10.8 per every 1,000 live births in 2018. This was the highest infant mortality rate out of all races and ethnicities, and was over twice as many as the Non-Hispanic White infant mortality rate at 4.6 per every 1,000 live births.

Due to racial disparities in the nationwide healthcare system, African-American mothers have a higher risk of death after giving birth compared to other races.

The CDC reported that between the years 2014-2017, about 41.7 per 100,000 live births resulted in a pregnancy-related mortality for Non-Hispanic Black women, compared to 13.4 for Non-Hispanic White mothers.

One study discovered that one way to decrease the high infant mortality rate was to have African-American doctors care for African-American infants after they are born.

Rachel Hardeman, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, conducted research on mortality rates in African-American infants by analyzing 1.8 million Florida-based hospital records. Hardeman and her team found that the African-American infant mortality rate was cut in half when the children were cared for by African-American doctors rather than White doctors.

Many researchers have found that African-American women have much higher chances of experiencing discrimination during childbirth than other races and ethnicities.

In a 2018 study titled “Reduced Disparities in Severe Maternal Morbidity and Mortality,” Elizabeth A. Howell, MD, MPP, found the Black or Hispanic race/ethnicity was associated with almost three times higher odds of discrimination during their childbirth hospitalization.

Efforts to Eliminate Racial Disparities During Pregnancy and Childbirth

While the thought of you or your child getting hurt simply because of the color of your skin is very unsettling and scary, it is important to note that not all women of color experience discrimination during childbirth.

That said, no mother or child should fall victim to racial bias in the delivery room. Hospitals and medical providers across the country are taking steps to avoid racial bias towards people of color by holding cultural and diversity training.

The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health created the “Reduction of Peripartum Racial/Ethnic Disparities Patient Safety Bundle” that highlights best practices for medical providers to eliminate racial disparities while caring for pregnant women. The goal of this training bundle is to increase the overall quality of care for women of color during pregnancy.

Though racial disparities in the medical sector are deeply rooted in systemic racism, many healthcare providers are taking the steps to ensure their staff is trained to avoid racial bias during childbirth. Eliminating these racial disparities can increase the probability of safe deliveries that keep both the mother and child healthy.

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s Values

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is important we remember the values of Dr. King, especially as we continue to fight for equality for all mothers in the delivery room.

Every mother deserves to feel safe when giving birth to their child and should not feel discriminated against in any way.

In addition to the many efforts to eliminate racial bias in the healthcare system, we must remember Dr. King’s legacy and values to fuel our fight for equality.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

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