Concerns over Black maternal mortality increase demand for doulas in Philadelphia

Black women make up 43% of births in Philadelphia but 73% of pregnancy-related deaths.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Thursday, May 5, 2022
Concerns over Black maternal mortality increase demand for doulas
Black women make up 43% of births in Philadelphia but 73% of pregnancy-related deaths. It's got some women searching for alternative solutions.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Many moms will tell you that having a baby is a beautiful experience, but it can also be a dangerous one, especially for Black women in our area.

Black women make up 43% of births in Philadelphia but 73% of pregnancy-related deaths. It's got some women searching for alternative solutions.

"My older two daughters were premature," said Donna Tomlin, of New Hanover Township, recalling her two previous birthing experiences.

It made her reluctant when considering whether to have a third child. Then she decided to search for a doula. It's a decision more African American women have been making.

Doulas are professionals, often times licensed, individuals who can provide everything from prenatal information and forms of care to delivery room coaching for both the mother and her partner. Doulas can also provide postpartum support.

While doulas do not deliver babies (though there are doulas who are also midwives and therefore can deliver babies), they work along with moms-to-be to develop a birthing and treatment plan, ensuring that the OB/GYN and other medical professionals are informed of and supportive of the mother's birthing goals.

"It's projected that you have to get an epidural and you have to labor in the hospital," said Adrianne O'Neal, who worked with a doula to have her first child, Adrian, who is now one year old.

O'Neal is now expecting her second child and working with the same Doula, Christine Eley, owner of Womb Intensive Systematic Holistic Care, or "Womb-Ish."

"Womb-Ish was birthed after I had my third child and realized how much I had to advocate for myself," said Eley who is a certified doula and is African American. "I was told I wasn't able to birth a baby over 8 pounds. I birthed a 9-pound 12 oz baby 22 inches."

The Womb-Ish location at the intersection of the Olney and Germantown sections of Philadelphia is one of several locations Eley owns across the country including in Louisiana and Texas. It provides services ranging from herbal supplements, breastfeeding classes, and support groups, to vaginal steaming, massage and birthing plan development. She has seen an increasing number of women coming into her offices seeking the help of a doula. Oftentimes, they're African American women who feel failed by the medical system.

"Some of these women were walking through the door like, 'I don't know what a doula does. I don't know why I want one, but I don't want to die in the birth room,'" Eley said.

It's the type of experience Kelli Harris of Philadelphia was too close to having.

"I was in the hospital for about a month," she said recalling the experience of having her first son nine years ago. She recalls her complaints of pain being dismissed as "just hormones."

"They sent me home with a UTI infection," said Harris, noting that her mother who works in health care insisted on taking her to back the hospital as Harris was at home recovering from childbirth. "Because the UTI went unnoticed, it turned into a kidney infection."

Her story is one example of why more Black women are turning to doulas and midwives.

"I always knew I wanted to birth naturally, and minorities, in general, we don't have that kind of support," said Alante Andrews who had her first child, Asher, four months ago.

Andrews says her birthing experience with Eley was exactly what she'd envisioned.

"To have someone who's also a minority actually teach me and my partner and be by my side to support me," she said of her birthing plan goal, which included not automatically going along with the whatever she was told by hospital workers and doctors.

Increased interest in companies like Womb-Ish comes at a crucial time. Leaders in the Philadelphia area and across the country have raised concerns about Black maternal mortality rates.

"It's bad enough that we as a country are behind in maternal mortality," said Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Delaware). "But for Black and brown women, it's three to four times higher death rates,"

Rochester is part of a bipartisan panel of national legislators to create MOMNIBUS: a package of bills focused on decreasing maternal mortality.

"The root of the problem is multi-faceted," she said. "It is everything from ensuring people have access to healthcare. There are some states in our country where Medicaid people aren't even eligible."

"Making sure the healthcare providers are culturally competent and they have the skills and the new information to be able to deliver services is also a big part of it."

Rochester's bill in the MOMNIBUS package has already passed in the House. It's called the Moms Matter Act.

"It's focused on maternal mental health and behavioral health and making sure we have the right resources on a community level and the right workforce."

Solving the issue of maternal mortality also includes paying attention to postpartum care, something Eley also provides through Womb-Ish.

"I definitely wouldn't have made it this far postpartum without this group," said Brittany Borden, a mom who used Eley's doula services and continues to meet with her and other mothers as part of a postpartum group.

Members of the group say having a doula created a more positive birthing experience for themselves and their partners. Educating partners on birthing options and advocacy techniques are also a key part of Eley's philosophy.

"Before we even think about advocacy, we have to first educate," said Eley, who saw roughly 50 mothers through their pregnancies last year.

O'Neal describes her birthing experience as "magical," completing her entire labor at home and spending minimal time in the hospital to deliver her baby. Eley was by her side as her doula the entire time.

"It allows you to advocate for yourself. It gives your partner the knowledge to advocate for you if you're not able to," said O'Neal.0

For Tomlin, the improved birthing experience is a whole new reason to celebrate this Mother's Day.

"I have a healthy full-term baby," she said.

To learn more about Womb-Ish, click: