Tufts Launches Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice

The new center is part of the School of Medicine and will focus on protecting Black women through the birthing experience by advocating for equitable quality care
A pregnant Black woman with her hands on her belly

In the United States, Black women are 2.5 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. For every 100,000 live births, about 37 Black mothers do not survive, compared to about 14 white mothers.

“The country is in a crisis around maternal health,” says Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, the Julia A. Okoro Professor of Black Maternal Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “The majority of Black maternal deaths are completely preventable.”

Addressing these disparities is central to the mission of the new Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice (CBMHRJ) at Tufts University, which will be led by founder-director Amutah-Onukagha, who is also an associate professor and assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She made the announcement about the new center at the fifth annual Black Maternal Health Conference, hosted by the School of Medicine.

There is growing recognition that structural racism contributes to adverse maternal health outcomes among Black women. Historic and ongoing systematic oppression result in diminished socioeconomic opportunities and increased exposure to social and environmental risks, which impact access and quality of care, as well as result in increased stress. Compared to white women, Black mothers experience higher rates of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia and eclampsia, as well as higher rates of hemorrhage and cardiomyopathy.

“The opportunity to create and launch a national Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice at this critical time will not only honor the work around maternal health equity, but also position Tufts as a leader in this field,” she says. “The vision of the center is to protect the Black birthing experience by advocating for quality, equitable, and respectful care in childbirth.”

Research will be a central pillar to the center’s organization, along with community-engaged work and policy, says Amutah-Onukagha, who is one of only six principal investigators in the country with funding from the National Institutes of Health to investigate racial disparities in pregnancy-related complications and deaths. She stresses the importance of learning from the community—what do they need, what have they experienced—and allowing that to inform research conducted at the center and policy work at the local and national level.

Addressing maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S. is a key priority of the Biden administration, and in December, Vice President Kamala Harris issued a nationwide Call to Action, urging the public and private sectors to try to improve health outcomes for parents and infants. The administration also made new commitments to support safe pregnancies and childbirth, and reduce complications and mortality in the year following birth. Amutah-Onukagha says the center will provide a platform for accessing newly allocated federal funds to address maternal health disparities.

“The center seeks to create a world where Black women can safely and comfortably receive equitable access to healthcare services without having to navigate discrimination in medical settings,” says Helen Boucher, dean ad interim of the School of Medicine and Tufts Medicine chief academic officer. “Not only is it a critical societal need, but I am also proud that this mission is in complete alignment with the central themes of the School of Medicine’s Strategic Plan, which include a commitment to anti-racism, inclusion, health justice, and advancing the health of populations.”

Training health professionals is another major effort for the new center—and not just training clinicians, but social workers, public health workers, nurses, and more. Amutah-Onukagha is also the director and founder of the Maternal Outcomes for Translational Health Equity Research (MOTHER) Lab, through which 35 students from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows receive training to become the next generation of maternal health scholar activists. The MOTHER Lab will become a unit within the center.

“We intend to be of service not only to the greater Boston area, but to the country. The work that will come out of this center will shape federal health legislation and hopefully impact policy in a way that will save lives,” says Amutah-Onukagha. “That's the biggest return on investment.”