Harriet Harman is calling on the government to urgently address the high death rate in pregnancy and childbirth among black women in the UK.
She has leant her support to a petition to improve health care for black women and conduct further research into the cause of the racial disparity, which has gained over 186,000 signatures.
Whereas seven in 100,000 white women die from pregnancy complications or in childbirth in the UK each year, the figure among black women is five times higher – at 38 out of 100,000. Asian women are twice as likely to die as white women.
Last month parliament’s human rights committee held an inquiry into racism and inequality experienced by the black community.
Among those giving evidence was Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, chief midwifery officer for England, who said there are currently no specific NHS England targets on reducing the mortality gap.
She said work is ongoing to improve antenatal care and highlighted that there is currently a very limited understanding of why the risks are much higher for black and other ethnic minority groups in pregnancy.
The formal response to the petition, from the Department of Health and Social Care, said the NHS has a long-term plan to improve care and identify the causes of the disparity seen in maternal outcomes.
A key focus is ‘continuity of care’, given by the same midwife or two at every appointment, with the aim that three quarters of all BAME mothers-to-be will receive this model by 2022 throughout their pregnancy, birth and postnatal period.
Research shows that having midwife-led care, and seeing the same midwife at appointments, means expectant mothers are sixteen per cent less likely to lose their baby overall and 24 per cent less likely to experience pre-term birth.
The government is also funding research into risk factors in pregnancy and the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women, who are more likely to be hospitalised with the disease.
From March 1 to April 14, NHS data show that 55 per cent of all pregnant women admitted to hospital with COVID-19 were from BAME backgrounds.
There are also fears that women have been reluctant to engage with maternity services during the pandemic and that this could continue into the coming months.