Key takeaways

  • According to the California Department of Public Health, the pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women in the state has long been disproportionately high.
  • Black women still experience pregnancy-related deaths at rates three to four times higher than those of their peers from other racial and ethnic groups.
  • To discuss what’s being done to address this crisis, the UCLA Center for Reproductive Science, Health and Education hosted a talk by L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell.

The pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women in California has long been disproportionately high, according to the California Department of Public Health. To this day, Black women are experiencing pregnancy-related deaths at rates three to four times higher than those of their peers from other racial and ethnic groups.

To discuss what’s being done to address this crisis, the UCLA Center for Reproductive Science, Health and Education held the first installment of its distinguished speaker series on Feb. 29 at the UCLA California NanoSystems Institute, featuring Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell. 

“This is a structural problem that we need to solve together,” said Amander Clark, the center’s inaugural director and a UCLA professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology. “The most important thing behind these statistics is that these are real people. Today, our goal is to hear from the people at the heart of making change to improve the lives of Black women and their infants and families.”

Mitchell spoke about how this issue quite literally changed the course of her career.

“The question we all have to ask ourselves is what are the barriers preventing us from addressing that morally offensive reality that there are groups of women who are on par socioeconomically and in terms of educational attainment with other groups, but have poorer health and birth outcomes seemingly due to the color of their skin,” she said. “That’s why I have lost my mind and left a simpler job that I loved to run for public office, and continue to run for public office, to attempt to create spaces and opportunities and policies to address those issues.”

She described how in 2019, she was able to pass the California Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act, SB 464, which mandated implicit bias training in the state’s hospitals. After a survey of providers revealed that 201 of the 242 responding facilities had not completed this training, Mitchell worked with the California attorney general to send a letter announcing an investigation. By July 2022, more than 80% of the perinatal care staff in all facilities had fully complied. 

Mitchell also discussed the importance of doulas — whose services are now included as a Medi-Cal benefit — in significantly improving health and birthing outcomes for Black women. 

“Why is that? Because the doula’s job is to pay attention to the birthing person and listen, believe and advocate,” she said. “We just had a meeting with all the health plans to talk about how we wanted them to help us support doulas, and so I’m very hopeful and excited about this vision we share in terms of rebuilding L.A. County — and the rest of the state will follow.”

Mitchell closed her solo remarks by noting that the last day of Black History Month and describing one of the most important items in her office: a portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman — and Black person — to seek a presidential nomination from one of the two major American political parties. 

“She is an example of a woman who had the courage and, frankly, the audacity to grab opportunities that were available for her in her time, and to accomplish extraordinary things,” Mitchell said. “Her career was defined by courageous, selfless feats — and now is a time when we need people to take courageous, selfless stances in our efforts to create a better L.A. County.”

The event also featured remarks by Kristin Schlater, health education program manager of L.A. Care Health Plan, as well as a conversation between Mitchell, Clark and UC Regent Elaine Batchlor, CEO of MLK Community Healthcare. Lifelong friends Mitchell and Batchlor discussed their participation in the 2023 documentary “Birthing Justice,” their favorite courses as students at UC Riverside and UCLA, respectively, and the ongoing battle against the root cause of the disparity at the heart of the evening’s event.

“There was a very large study done in Florida that looked at all of the thousands of births in that state over a period of time, and then compared outcomes for Black children who were treated by white pediatricians and those who were treated by Black pediatricians,” Batchlor said. “The Black children treated by Black pediatricians had a significantly higher chance of surviving, and the association became stronger as the children became sicker. It’s wonderful for us to do bias training, but we also need to diversify the health care workforce.”

Ultimately, the program served as a reminder of how powerful the very mission of the UCLA Center for Reproductive Science, Health and Education truly is.

“There has been a lot of discussion based on politics and perceptions around reproductive health, but far too little of this discussion has really been centered on science,” said Tracy Johnson, UCLA’s dean of life sciences. “And that’s where the UCLA CRSHE is making a difference, because science should be the foundation for health and policy professionals to make rational decisions that affect the lives of not only women, but our entire society.”

Event attendees, including many undergraduate and graduate UCLA students, agreed.

“As a Black person who navigated out of poverty and feels like it is a daily battle to have my experiences and existence viewed as a positive, listening to Holly Mitchell speak so powerfully, confidently and intelligently about her experiences fighting for a better world reminded me to never let go of what makes me who I am,” said Isaias Roberson, a UCLA doctoral student in molecular biology. “To see a Black woman stand in front of so many high-ranking people to discuss how she fought to pass bill after bill to combat racism and fight for maternal health, all the while using the vernacular of our people, was a message: Our Blackness enriches the world in so many ways.”