Black Maternal Health Week — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:52 am on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 9:52 am, 14th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy, for her powerful opening speech and for the work that she has been doing to lead on this really important issue.

The theme for this year’s Black Maternal Health Awareness Week is “changing the narrative”. We have to change the narrative. There is a call for a sea change in the outcomes for black women during pregnancy, and in finding ways to empower black patients to advocate for their health. We have known for years that women of black, Asian and mixed heritage face significantly higher maternal and prenatal mortality rates, and that women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds discover many conditions during their pregnancy. I discovered that I had fibroids at my first maternal scan during my first pregnancy. As an expectant mother, that brought a level of fear and anxiety—what would happen to me and my baby? In most cases fibroids can be unharmful, but in a small number of cases they can cause complications for the growth of the child and for both mother and baby during labour.

Unfortunately, we know that black and minority ethnic women are sometimes not listened to during the course of their pregnancy, and that there can be unconscious bias as a result of the structural inequality and institutional racism in our healthcare system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham highlighted, Professor Knight suggests in the MBRRACE-UK report that a number of black and ethnic minority people face microaggressions, which means that symptoms can be indicative of complications that are missed, and that they are not given the attention they need. The “changing the narrative” campaign helps to empower black women to make their voices heard on this issue. It is crucial that their voices are listened to, and that their experiences are heard. I pay tribute to Five X More for the vital work that it has been doing to lead the campaign and, most importantly, to get the Government to listen to the many voices of the black and Asian women who are suffering in this area.

As a mother to two young children, who were born just across the river at St Thomas’ Hospital, this issue is close to my heart and those of many of my constituents in Vauxhall. More than 1,000 Vauxhall residents signed the petition urging the Government to pay close attention to this issue and to improve health outcomes and maternal rates for black women in the UK. Compared with white European women, black African women in the UK are 83% more likely to suffer near-misses in childbirth, and black Caribbean women are 80% more likely to do so. My two children were very stubborn and did not want to come out; in the end, they had to be evicted by C-section. My first pregnancy was fine: I was induced, it did not work, so the C-section was the next day. My second pregnancy did not go so well. Having gone through a C-section, I did not want that again. I tried to explain to the doctors that my body did not respond to induction and that if they just gave me time, the baby would eventually come out. Everything did not go to plan and I was rushed to theatre for an emergency C-section.

Panic, fear and the unknown, added to the fact that they had not been able to contact or locate my husband, meant my body froze and rejected the epidural. I heard the doctor’s words that I would have to go under general anaesthetic. I asked, “What? I am going to be put to sleep and you are going to deliver this baby. What if I don’t wake up?” I was lucky because I did wake up, after many hours. A number of black women are not as lucky; they do not wake up. It is important that we listen to black women and the experiences of all women, because they know their bodies best.

During the debate earlier this year, alongside the petition in April, the Minister would not set a target around black maternal health:

“We cannot set targets until we know what we are trying to achieve through those targets and what we need to address.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 172WH.]

We know that black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth; women of mixed heritage are three times more likely; and Asian women twice as likely. Those statistics paint a clear picture of the problem we need to solve. It is now five months since we last discussed this issue in the House. I have one question for the Minister: what research has been done to set the target, so that we can measure the progress to end this disparity? If none, what steps is she taking to gather the data urgently to tackle this problem as soon as possible? One death is far too many. It is important that we listen to those women and address this issue urgently.