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Tori Bowie’s death during childbirth highlights racial disparities in US system

Among the factors putting black women in more danger are institutional bias, structural racism, generational trauma, a lack of trust in the system, and ignorance, writes Dave Hannigan

Having just anchored the United States to a blistering victory over Jamaica in the 4x100 metres relay at the 2016 Olympic Games, Tori Bowie high-stepped around the track, punching the air and screaming with delight before being reunited with her team-mates. An abiding image of that August evening shows her grinning effervescently alongside Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix and English Gardner, the quartet draped in Old Glory. Bowie was days away from her 26th birthday, a portrait of power and poise, leaving Rio with silver (100m), bronze (200m) and, finally, gold. Twelve months later, she won the 100m at the world Championships and could call herself the fastest woman on earth.

On May 2nd Bowie was found dead in her home in Orange County, Florida. She was eight months pregnant, and the autopsy reported she had suffered complications from childbirth including respiratory distress and eclampsia (seizures caused by high blood pressure). After the news broke, Felix wrote a poignant essay for Time magazine, equal parts tribute to her former colleague, personal revelation about how close she herself had come to dying from pre-eclampsia while giving birth at 32 weeks in November 2018, and call-to-arms on behalf of African American mothers. A protest song she has been singing for quite some time.

“We need to provide women of colour with more support during their pregnancies,” said Felix, testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing in Washington a full four years before Bowie’s death. “Research shows that racial bias in our maternal healthcare system includes things like providers spending less time with Black mothers, underestimating the pain of their Black patients, ignoring symptoms and dismissing complaints. There were others like me, just like me. Black like me, healthy like me, doing their best – just like me. They faced death like me too.”

Felix’s claims are bolstered by the experience of another team-mate from Brazil. Tianna Madison (Bartoletta was her married name before divorce) detailed how she underwent a remarkably similar trauma. Going into labour at 26 weeks, she went to the hospital carrying an advance medical directive (a legal document instructing doctors about her care) and a copy of her will. Fully aware of how black women are sometimes treated, she warned Chuck Ryan, the white father of her child, about the need to advocate for her, and later credited his speaking out with saving the lives of both her and her baby.


“THREE (3) of the FOUR (4) of us who ran on the SECOND fastest 4x100m relay of all time, the 2016 Olympic Champions, have nearly died or died in childbirth,” wrote Madison on Instagram. “WTF. Why? Black women have the HIGHEST maternal mortality rate. 3 times higher than white women. And the more educated the black woman, the higher her mortality rate becomes.”

The three sprinters were well-known, college-educated, and had earned well from their sport. Yet, all three ended up in almost identical peril when pregnant. If, in America, it’s presumed, rather shamefully, that celebrity and money guarantee proper healthcare, the evidence of what has happened to multiple black female athletes suggests otherwise. Serena Williams, rich and famous beyond compare, almost died from a blood clot in her lung after giving birth to her daughter. Throughout her post-partum ordeal, hospital staff dismissed her requests for a CAT scan by saying the medicine was making her “talk crazy”. Until her own doctor finally ordered one that saved her life.

“My personal OBGYN was amazing,” wrote Williams. “She never made me feel dismissed. Another doctor was supposed to be checking in but I didn’t see him very much. In fact, I saw him only once. In the US, Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts. Many of these deaths are considered by experts to be preventable. Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”

Among the factors putting these women at risk are institutional bias, structural racism, generational trauma, a lack of trust in the system, and ignorance. The Momnibus Act, a long-standing attempt to package 13 bills designed to save lives and address the racial disparities driving maternal morbidity rates, was recently reintroduced before the United States Congress. It is hoped media coverage of Bowie’s death and the way in which Felix and Madison have spoken out may increase the chances of that being passed.

Frentorish “Tori” Bowie was born in Mississippi where, after a spell in foster care, she and her sister were raised in Sandhill, a town with no traffic lights, by their grandmother. A basketball standout who turned into a track phenomenon, she always retained the country accent of her youth but, once she found success, strolled the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, was photographed by Annie Liebovitz for Vogue, and featured in ad campaigns for Valentino and Stella McCartney-Adidas. At the height of her fame, she regularly visited foster homes across the US south giving gifts and racing against the kids but, in retirement, she had withdrawn from public life and became something of a recluse.

“I’m hopeful that things can get better,” wrote Felix. “I’m hopeful that Tori, who stood on the podium at Rio, gold around her neck and sweetness in her soul, won’t die in vain.”