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Jamaa Birth Village Founder Calls Mercy’s Ferguson Plans 'Predatory' And 'Opportunistic'

Brittany "Tru" Kellman joined Friday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Since Brittany “Tru” Kellman started Jamaa Birth Village in 2015, she’s sought to provide a community-driven solution to an ongoing nationwide health issue: the racial disparities within pregnancy-related mortality rates. African American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers.

For Kellman, who endured two cesarean sections and other challenges as a teen mom years ago, that work has been focused in Ferguson, Missouri, where she lives. But earlier this week, a letter published in the St. Louis American — and signed by many women of color who are leaders in the region — revealed a major controversy that’s been festering for months.

“As black women and Missourians who organize to dismantle reproductive oppression,” the letter began, “we write to express our outrage and demand accountability for the disrespect and unethical treatment of Missouri’s first black Certified Professional Midwife [Kellman] by Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care.”

Kellman has accused Mercy of breaking an agreement to “leave midwifery services in Ferguson to Jamaa,” as reported by St. Louis Public Radio. She said Mercy’s August announcement, of plans to open a nearby clinic next year, came after Jamaa agreed in March to train Mercy staff to administer culturally sensitive care at an existing clinic in Creve Coeur.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Kellman joined host Sarah Fenske to share her perspective on the situation. Mercy has declined interviews but did offer a statement expressing regret over “the confusion that has arisen related to our plans.”

“Mercy’s desire is not to compete with or diminish existing health services, but to complement and supplement them — filling unmet needs and improving access and quality of life for women and others in the community,” the statement reads in part. “Our plans are centered around much-needed access to primary care and do not include a birthing center; only the extension of certified nurse midwifery services in a location that offers greater access and convenience. Many of the women who will benefit from these services are currently traveling to Mercy Hospital St. Louis to receive this care. 

“We respect the model of care that Jamaa Birth Village offers to women, and through open dialogue, we believe that Mercy and Jamaa can collaborate in strengthening quality care for women seeking prenatal care and childbirth services. Our greatest hope is to renew our discussions to seek a path forward.”

Kellman said there had been regular meetings between Jamaa and Mercy discussing collaboration, with Jamaa opening up about its model of service to women of color, before Mercy’s announcement of plans for a nearby facility set to open next year.

“They learned more about our model over the course of [the past year], but it was on Aug. 1 that I got an email and later a call from the director … [saying], ‘Unfortunately I have to tell you we’re putting a midwifery clinic in Ferguson on West Florissant.’”

Kellman called Mercy’s actions “predatory” and “opportunistic,” adding that they’re “wrapped into this historic piece of medical institutions taking things from black communities, colonizing them and then feeding them back for profit.”

Listeners weighed in on the situation as well.

Listen to the full discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.