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Oparah discusses birthing justice with black women in new book

On Thursday night, members of the Black Women Birthing Justice collective, joined in the student union to celebrate the publication of Battling Over Birth: Black Women and the Maternal Health-Care Crisis in California by sharing stories of their turbulent experiences during pregnancy. 

The Black Women Birthing Justice (BWBJ) began in 2011 in the living room of Chinyere Oparah, provost and dean of the faculty at Mills College and co-author of the report. She and Cherisse Harper had been reflecting on their birthing experiences and realized that they both felt disempowered by health-care professionals throughout their pregnancies. Upon this realization, they were inspired to speak to other women about their experiences during pregnancy and childbirth and compiled a research report based on their findings. 

“Nobody was asking Black women for our stories,” Oparah said. “We decided that we needed to take control and let Black women tell our own stories about what is wrong with the maternal health-care system.”

BWBJ is a grassroots-funded organization that aims to “educate women to advocate for themselves, to document birth stories and to raise awareness about birthing alternatives,” according to their website.  Their vision is for “every pregnant person to have an empowering birthing experience, free of unnecessary medical intervention and forced separation from their child.”

Throughout the evening, women shared their responses to Oparah’s key research question: “What was your vision for your birth and how did reality compare?”

Women ages 17 to 46 shared stories of discrimination, judgment and lack of quality health-care based on their ages, race, class and even the number of children they had. 

Most testimonies detailed the women’s thoughts and feelings during pregnancies, childbirth and postpartum experiences. They shared how being a part of the BWBJ gave them the space to reflect on their journeys.

“The Black women’s birthing circle was the first time anyone asked me what I envisioned my labor and my son’s birth to be,” Jazz Hudson, who met Oparah when she was 19 years old. 

During her first pregnancy at age 18, Hudson said that medical staff told her that her “womb is the most dangerous place for her baby to be,” “just because she could get pregnant doesn’t mean she should be a mother,” and that Planned Parenthood could “rid her of her burdens for free.”

“Everything they ask me to do is against my body’s innate greatness,” Hudson said. 

Hudson would not be the first young, Black female to endure this type of distress at the hands of her health-care providers. 

BWBJ’s research found that a “lack of respect for women’s boundaries or bodily autonomy, stereotyping due to race, class, age, sexual orientation and marital status and attempted suppression of self-advocacy are primary sources of conflict,” according to their press release for the Battling Over Birth event. 

Other speakers also detailed the manipulative tactics and lack of support they experienced throughout their pregnancies by health-care professionals. These professionals, the speakers say, were concerned about a number of risks and liabilities noncompliant pregnant women posed. 

“Ultimately it was a battleground,” Harper said of her home birth. “My family who love and support me continued to indoctrinate me with fear.”

She described having to stand up for herself against family members who were medical professionals and felt that hospital births were the “right” and “safe” way to deliver. She even said that by the time she began giving birth, she had to barricade herself in her room to prevent paramedics, who her family had called, from attempting to take her to the hospital against her will. 

BWBJ’s research also supports this testimony. Their press release said their researchers have found data indicating that women are increasingly subjected to “a culture of fear and coercion.”

“Over 1 in 4 women in the study expressed a preference for home birth, but cited barriers due to cost, lack of access, and pressures from loved ones and medical practitioners,” the release said.

While many expressed frustrations with how they were cared for, their stories were often resolved with words of upliftment and encouragement for other women. 

“It wasn’t the stuff or the hospital equipment. It was me,” Harper said. “My own resilience and my desire to have a liberated body.” 

BWBJ participant Tsade Neway remembers the words “hurry up and get it over with” as a recurring phrase throughout her pregnancy and recalled her own moment of liberation. 

“I had to become my own healer,” Neway said.