For Black pregnant people, fear of police brutality starts before their children are born

Black women at a protest carrying signs that say "Is my son next?" and "Black Lives Matter"

February 2, 2022

In the United States, police kill around 1,000 people each year. Almost a third of those are Black. While attention has rightly focused on victims of police brutality, police killings of Black people also affect the health of pregnant and postpartum Black people. Anticipated racism from police, specifically police brutality toward their children, may be a factor contributing to stress among Black pregnant people. Understanding Black pregnant people’s experiences and perceptions of police brutality in relation to their pregnancies and children can help inform policy and clinical guidelines that may reduce racial inequities in health.

Researcher Renee Mehra interviewed Black pregnant women in New Haven to explore their lived experience of these issues. Four major themes emerged:

  • Experiences that lead to police distrust. Participants shared how experiences like stories from their youth, stories about police interactions when living in predominantly white spaces, and stories of mistreatment and racism from police shaped their relationship with police. Many described both positive and negative interactions with police.
  • Anticipating police brutality. Personal and shared stories led the participants to anticipate future interactions with police, both for themselves and their children. The fear of police brutality toward their children was true even for people who reported positive interactions with the police.
  • Stress and fear during pregnancy. Participants described anticipation they felt regarding police brutality against their children as a source of stress during pregnancy. Some participants who knew they were having a son reported having a heightened sense of fear about raising their son and how he would be treated by police. The limits of parental protection in a racist world and the seeming randomness of police brutality against Black people were sources of stress.
  • ‘The talk’ about avoiding police brutality. The participants had already begun thinking about and planning for having “the talk” about police brutality and racism with their children, even when their children weren’t born yet. The necessity of having this conversation was almost universal, and many struggled with worries about when to have it, how much information to divulge, and who to involve.

The stress related to constant police surveillance and fear of violence may affect pregnant people in unique ways. To provide the best care for pregnant people who may experience stress related to police brutality, clinicians should thoughtfully screen all pregnant people. For people experiencing stress, clinicians should provide support and referrals to individuals with experience treating mental health related to racial trauma and/or other culturally informed therapies.

These actions, however, won’t address the root cause of the stress. Police brutality, not the concern about it, is the issue to be solved. As a national public health crisis, police brutality must be addressed using community-centered strategies to prevent harming the health of birthing people and their children.

“If my son who’s ever in trouble for any reason or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t feel that he has that protection in our neighborhood.” (36-year-old, pregnant mother of one)