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No Mother Left On the Bench: Athlete Mothers and the Fight for Maternal Health Equity

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Olympic Track and Field star, Tori Bowie, was found dead in her home after facing pregnancy complications on May 2. A three-time Olympic medalist and member of the 2016 4x100 meter relay team, Bowie was eight months pregnant and her death has been linked to eclampsia and respiratory distress. Bowie’s death has sparked conversation surrounding maternal health, especially for black women, as she is not the only athlete to have suffered due to maternal health complications. It is time for Americans to address the maternal health disparities that persist and how women’s sports have a role to play in bringing attention to the issue.

It is no secret that the United States is in the midst of a maternal health crisis. The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world with maternal mortality rates that are the same as underdeveloped countries. In America, Black women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than white women. This is all due to a lack of equitable maternal health resources and a racialized stigma that persists in the medical field.

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There are multiple female athletes who have faced complications during pregnancy or birth. Tennis star, Serena Williams, could have died after she lost feeling in her legs after giving birth due to blood clots that had formed. In 2010, doctors discovered blood clots had formed in Williams’s lungs and that she was at risk for developing more clots in the future. While pregnant, she could not be on her proper medication and when she lost feeling in her legs after giving birth to her first child, she begged doctors to look for clots. If she had not advocated for herself, the tennis player could have died. Olympic athlete, Tianna Bartoletta Madison, revealed that she went into labor with her son at 26 weeks pregnant and was unsure if she would survive. As a teammate of Bowie, she has felt the need to highlight how nearly her entire relay team has suffered from a pregnancy related issue. Allyson Felix, another member of the relay team and Olympic track athlete was diagnosed with preeclampsia, high blood pressure that can occur starting at 20 weeks pregnant, and had to have an emergency c-section at 32 weeks pregnant with her daughter. She mentioned in an essay that she was unsure if she would survive and was unaware of the risk that she faced while pregnant because of a lack of information and communication from her doctor. These are only some of the women that have faced health complications related to pregnancy and there are countless more with similar stories.

Courtesy of Lee Jin-man (AP Photo)

Athletes have already used their platforms to call for change. Most notably, Felix has launched a childcare initiative for athlete mothers and also used her social media to call for action. Felix’s child care initiative provides free care for athletes, coaches and staff that work for U.S. Track and Field. After the death of her teammate, Bowie, Felix turned to social media saying that the death was “heartbreaking” and calling for change. She continues to be an advocate for social change on her social media platforms.

"We continue to face a maternity mortality crisis in this country. Black women are at risk. It's why I won't stop doing this work," Felix wrote. "We can't sit by and continue to watch our loved ones die when many of these complications are preventable. Standing with you T."

Courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

Crystal Dunn, US Women’s National Team and Portland Thorns midfielder, has partnered with Modern Fertility, an organization that educates women about reproductive health. Dunn advocates for better healthcare and education through her work with this organization. She highlights how many women do not have fair paid maternity leave which leads many women to believe they cannot be both a professional and a mother. Dunn’s work has been to reveal that women do not need to sacrifice their careers to have children, especially female athletes as pregnant individuals can continue to maintain a fitness regimen, despite some opposing claims. Dunn hopes to continue to advocate for better education in the realm of reproductive health, especially for black women, while she continues to thrive in her soccer career.

Now it is time for other athletes and the sports industry as a whole to work toward making a change. Teams need to ensure there is fair paid maternity leave for mothers and provide access to childcare. The sports industry must educate individuals about the maternal health crisis and help athletes, coaches and staff find the resources they need. Whether it be partnering with clinics to provide educational resources or promoting maternal health through healthy practices and policies, there is room to improve in all aspects of the sports industry. If we all work together, we can create the change necessary to prevent more women and pregnant individuals from losing their lives due to pregnancy complications.

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