The United States is the most dangerous country in the industrialized world to have a child or be pregnant. And, conditions are much worse in Black and other communities of color. Aftershock, 2022 winner of the Sundance U.S. Documentary Special Impact for Change Award, centers on two women — Shamony Makeba Gibson and Amber Rose Issac — who died because of preventable childbirth complications. Aftershock’s directors, Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt, mothers themselves, document two grieving families to expose a growing epidemic of U.S. Black maternal mortality. In the U.S., Black women are nearly four times more likely to die during or following giving birth than white women.
The film, streaming on Hulu, follows two mourning fathers on their journey to raise their children as single parents. At the same time, they build a movement to expose the dangerous reality of reproductive healthcare for women of color as a systemic issue that dogs our society.
Racist pigeonholes yield racist results
Gibson’s and Rose’s families face stereotypes that come with being Black and poor throughout their experience with pregnancy. One commentator says “A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man being stopped by the police.” Tennis icon Serena Williams nearly died from blood clots while in the hospital for a cesarean birth. She was forced to get out of bed and instruct the staff to administer lifesaving medication.
The film contains harrowing facts. Most of the maternal deaths are from cesarean sections. While sometimes absolutely necessary, these births are also dangerous. Some hospitals love them because they get paid more money for performing them than for a regular birth, and they are cheaper because the hospital stay is usually a day, when a vaginal birth can take longer.
Patients who have private insurance have their own doctors who can make sure they are treated responsibly. Medicaid patients can be directed to a cesarean, regardless of whether it is safe. The film shows one mother whose home birth failed. Her partner got an ambulance that refused to take her to her regular hospital, but instead to one that did a high number of cesareans. This mother also died.
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The film shows that when most Black mothers die the effects ripple outward. Families of the deceased must raise a child without their mother and with little support from the state. The filmmakers already knew that the U.S. is the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth. They did not know before they began the film that Black women die at more than three times the rate of white women.
Gibson’s partner Omari Maynard and mother Shawnee Benton Gibson put out a call to action to publicize an event called “Aftershock” after Gibson died of racist medical neglect. The filmmakers quickly followed up and her mother became part of the project and is essential to the film’s immediacy.
A balance sheet
The film offers an insightful solution on the need for humanitarian approaches to labor, such as midwifery. It also teaches that midwifery was the purview of Black women — slaves or free — in the U.S. until the early 20th century. The documentary exposes systemic racism in the medical field. Childbirth becomes driven by a calculator that gatekeeps treatment care and support for Black and brown women. It proves that racism is an essential, worsening component of our current system. What the film lacks is a wider solution, one not based on the race of the mother or how much money the patient has.
Dr. Neel Shah of the Harvard Medical School, says “When we talk about infant health, we are really talking about a mothers’ health. … The wellbeing of moms is a bellwether for the wellbeing of society in general. And that’s why every injustice in our society shows up in maternal health and in maternal health outcomes.”
The best answer to this ongoing inhumanity would be a fully funded, free, universal healthcare system from birth to death for anyone who lives, works, or is visiting here. As the film says, “every woman should deliver a healthy child in this country and live to raise that child.”
Aftershock certainly opens the door wide for this discussion.