SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — Around 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or pregnancy-related complications in the United States, and two-thirds of these deaths are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The numbers become more and more startling when the issue is further scrutinized.

In 2020, the CDC declared maternal mortality a national health crisis for Black women. Officials found that around 55 black women died from childbirth complications compared to 15 white women.

“So many of these deaths are preventable,” said Dr. Michelle Debbink, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Utah Health. “It’s the difference in the way that we treat each other, and the way opportunities for healthcare are structured in our society that is leading to this.”

When one Utah activist and doula saw the numbers, she decided she had to do something about it.

“I can’t just sit back and see my people die,” said Ashley Finley, a doula and birthkeeper based in Salt Lake City.

Finley said she specializes in providing culturally competent care for marginalized parents. She defines her role as a birthkeeper as someone who is ancestrally knowledgeable and wise about the process of bringing a new life to the world.

Kendra Foster is 30 weeks pregnant when she finally found a double who matched her criteria, and that person is Finley.

“I wanted someone who understood me not just as someone who was going to be a new mom but as someone who was going to be a Black mom,” Foster said. “The truth is, I just want better for moms. I want better for their babies, and I know that better exists because Ashley provides that so readily and easily.”

Finley’s responsibilities include accommodating the needs of her clients, frequent visits during pregnancy and establishing a birth plan, which is essentially the client’s vision of the birth and whether they would like to give birth at home, at the hospital or at a birthing center.

“We put all those details into plan, [and we have to] always be flexible because we know that babies kind of laugh at our plan sometimes,” Finely said.

But for each birth in a hospital, some things are constant in Finley’s practice of protection.

She said she feels strongly about making sure that people in the hospital room know there is a doula present. This is so hospital staff are aware that the mother has an advocate. Foster could not agree more.

“[Having Finely there] meant not having to explain that I was scared,” Foster said. “It meant not having to convince them that the risk of death was real, and it just meant a sense of safety.”

She also empowers her clients to ask questions about birth and requests medical staff to pause.

“It reminds Black women that we have autonomy and that our bodies are ours; our births are ours; our babies are ours,” Finley said. “We know how to keep us safe. We know how to give our babies here.”

The latest numbers from the CDC from February 2023 show that rates of maternal mortality are only going up in the U.S.

“It breaks my heart because it still shows me that the system is not made for us,” Finley said.

Until the gap in care is bridged, Finley is carving out a safe space for parents of color in the pursuit of pregnancy and parenthood.

“I think that the support and the expansion of midwifery and doula care within the United States would be a huge step in the right direction for maternal mortality rates,” Debbink said.