Updated at 9:48 p.m. to include response from Mercy Health beneath original story.
The undersigned black women make the following claims and demands of Mercy Health.
As black women and Missourians who organize to dismantle reproductive oppression, we write to express our outrage and demand accountability for the disrespect and unethical treatment of Missouri’s first black Certified Professional Midwife by Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care.
Brittany “Tru” Kellman, founder and executive director of Jamaa Birth Village in Ferguson, has been providing care and building a community to improve pregnancy outcomes in the St. Louis area since 2015. Tru centers black women and women of color in her practice, thus providing a path to healthy birth from within our community. She provides training and support, critical care and advice, and the cultural understanding that comes from her being a black woman and mother.
Jamaa Birth Village is a success story, and that has prompted many established groups and organizations to reach out with offers of support or opportunities to collaborate. Such was the case with Elizabeth Cook, CNM, and director of Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care.
Over several months, Jamaa and Mercy arrived at an agreement on how they would partner going forward. They have a memo of understanding. So, we were shocked to learn from Tru that Ms. Cook informed her that Mercy was not honoring the agreement. Specifically, Mercy had worked closely with Jamaa to gain insight and knowledge about their Midwifery care model only to announce that they plan to move forward with their own Midwifery clinic just a few blocks away from Jamaa Birth Village in Ferguson.
The history of medicine in America, particularly obstetrics and midwifery, is littered with the appropriation of black women’s work and science gained through experimentation on our bodies. We know all too well that black women in Missouri are 3 to 4 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than the general population, and we also know that Mercy could have chosen from many other communities lacking midwifery care to expand its services.
Mercy Birthing Center’s direct action and decision to advance partnership with Jamaa Birth Village with the core intent to gain insight and information about programs and services, in leveraging their plan of starting a Midwifery clinic in Ferguson, in competition with Jamaa Birth Village unbeknownst to them, is sinister and steeped in racism, oppression and white saviorism at its least. By refusing to honor their agreement and instead planning to compete with Jamaa Birth Village in Ferguson, Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care perpetuates the ugly and shameful history of dismissing and undermining black women’s midwifery work.
More importantly, through their disrespectful and unethical actions, Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care has demonstrated a lack of respect for black women, Midwifery, and our community.
Jamaa Birth Village’s Board of Directors and executive director met with the Mercy Birthing Center leadership team on September 16, 2019 to address this issue respectably. Mercy has not responded to Jamaa Birth Village in their request to address this issue. The concerns of Jamaa Birth Village and the community with Mercy’s latest move has been utterly ignored and this is unacceptable.
The last thing we need in St. Louis is an expansion of a disrespectful corporation dressed up to look like a community provider attempting to destroy something a black woman built so they can profit off of healthcare Black women need.
We know that by taking action and speaking out against egregious behavior of Mercy, we are putting a lot at risk, including our relationships and our safety. However, we have a duty and obligation to fight for the community who has entrusted us to save the lives of birthing black people. The stakes are much too high to cower under intimidation of a large non-profit that is leveraging its privilege and power to undermine the work of black women.
We call on Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care to issue a public apology to Brittany “Tru” Kellman, Jamaa Birth Village, and the communities they serve. We demand that Mercy honor the agreement with Jamaa Birth Village and stop all proceedings to start a Midwifery clinic in Ferguson where Jamaa Birth Village is currently serving their community in a culturally congruent manner. We proudly stand in sisterhood with Tru and Jamaa Birth Village as we demand accountability and justice.
State Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis)
State Representative Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson)
Tishaura O. Jones, treasurer of the City of St. Louis
Cora Faith Walker, Esq., MPH
Ashli Bolden, vice president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute
Kayla Reed, director of Action St. Louis
Pamela Merritt, co-founder and co-director at Reproaction
Brittany Jones, organizing fellow with Reproaction
Hakima Tafunzi Payne, BSN, CNE, IBCLC
Brittany Ferrell, BSN, RN
Benetta Ward, MPH, CD
Mercy Health responds:
In response to “Mercy must honor its agreement with Jamaa Birth Village,” we would like to begin by addressing our goal for establishing a Mercy location in Ferguson: to meet the community’s need for culturally competent care and improve access to locally-based health care as outlined in our Mercy Hospital St. Louis community health improvement plan for 2019. In every community we serve, Mercy begins by seeking input on what’s needed and looking for gaps in health care services. With the feedback we received in the Ferguson community, our location – targeted to open in the summer of 2020 – will be a comprehensive clinic offering primary care and women’s services, as well as behavioral health and other needed social services. As we move toward the opening, we will continue to listen to feedback from the community.
Mercy has long collaborated with organizations to better meet the needs of our patients. We worked closely with Jamaa Birth Village and Brittany “Tru” Kellman long before the announcement of the new clinic location and hope that relationship will continue. The new Mercy Clinic will offer prenatal care and other women’s services, but plans do not include a birthing center. The Mercy Birthing Center – Midwifery Care on the campus of Mercy Hospital St. Louis has received referrals from Jamaa when its home birth patients wanted or needed a midwifery birthing option in a hospital setting. We have the same goal of providing the best care to women and infants with a commitment to eliminate disparities in care.
The services in Ferguson are not meant as a replacement for the services provided by Jamaa, but a complement to them. Our greatest hope is to build an ongoing relationship with Jamaa, with each organization contributing their unique strengths, to offer the Ferguson community a wide range of services for all levels of care needed, close to home.
We welcome the opportunity to continue our dialogue with the community and with Jamaa Birth Village.