Olympic superstar Allyson Felix highlights the crisis facing Black mothers

Published on
August 11, 2021

When superstar athlete Allyson Felix testified before Congress in 2019 about maternal mortality and racial bias in the health care system, she’d already won six gold medals in four Olympic games. With the U.S. women’s 4x400 relay team’s domination of the track in Tokyo last week, the sprinter earned a new title: most decorated U.S. track and field Olympian, surpassing Carl Lewis.  

Felix told lawmakers two years ago — just as she did in a moving letter to her now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter captured on video ahead of the Olympics — that the title of “Camryn’s mom” brings her the most pride. I imagine that her pride in motherhood has just grown stronger with a new place in U.S. Olympic history. 

Before the games, NBC’s Lester Holt reported that this Olympics is about more than just winning medals for Felix. “She’s running for progress, for equality and for her daughter,” Holt said. As Felix has embraced activism in recent years, her personal experience and passion have helped raise awareness about the crisis of maternal mortality in Black America. 

Felix was healthy and still training until the third trimester of her pregnancy. But at 32 weeks, severe preeclampsia, a life-threatening diagnosis for both her and Camryn, quickly led to an emergency cesarean section. Felix endured complications from the condition after the birth and her daughter stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for a month. Felix told members of Congress that going into pregnancy, she thought that fitness, resources and care were enough to prepare her for birth. But after enduring what she called “the two most terrifying days of my life,” Felix discovered this truth: “I learned my story was not so uncommon. There were others like me, just like me — Black like me, healthy like me and doing their best just like me. And they faced death like me, too.”

Research consistently demonstrates that Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. This holds true regardless of socioeconomic or education status.

A key component of these disparities comes from biases in our health care system. Monica McLemore, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco and Stephanie Bray, president and CEO of the United Way California Capital Region, explained in a CHJ post last year that “research has shown strong associations between disrespectful care from health systems and providers and poor reproductive health outcomes. The association between institutionalized and internalized racism and the health of Black women is clear.” 

These systemic biases manifest themselves with Black Americans getting less time with health care providers as well as those providers underestimating the pain of Black patients, ignoring their symptoms and dismissing their complaints. Felix has said she trusted her doctors to tell her how to monitor her body during pregnancy to identify potential complications. But instead she found a health care system that provides rickety support for Black mothers-to-be.

Still, something greater grinds away at Black women’s health – everyday racism. As Nina Martin and Renee Montagne reported for NPR in 2017, “it's the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.” 

As that story from the “Lost Mothers” series goes on to explain, the stress of racism can deteriorate a body, making a person physically older than their actual age. “This means that for black women, the risks for pregnancy start at an earlier age than many clinicians — and women— realize, and the effects on their bodies may be much greater than for white women,” NPR reported. “That's a concept that professional organizations and providers have barely begun to wrap their heads around.”

Felix’s raft of medals at the Tokyo Olympics showed naysayers that pregnancy would not ruin her running career. This is the same woman who stood up to Nike, after all, after she struggled to secure maternity protections from the company. Her efforts helped usher in policy changes at the corporation, another victory for female athletes and their families that will hopefully trickle down to better policies for all mothers.

Persistent racism remains the thorniest issue blocking improved health outcomes for Black mothers. As our country continues to grapple with structural racism and inequality, the statistics on Black maternal health stand as stark reminders of why progress urgently needs to be made.

When she testified before Congress, Felix lamented that many Black women are unaware about their heightened risk for death and complications during pregnancy and childbirth. “It is not talked about, even among friends,” she said. Even so, her courage to discuss these issues so publicly on the world stage, coupled with her record-breaking athletic prowess, may begin to break down old taboos and make people more aware about the dangers facing Black mothers and their babies, whether it’s policymakers, health care providers or pregnant mothers themselves.