San Francisco announces plans to provide doulas for low-income mothers

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen Tuesday announced a new program aimed at combating an alarming number of health problems in black and Pacific Islander babies and mothers.

The plan is to train and provide doulas or birth companions.

Records show nearly a quarter of all infant deaths in San Francisco are African Americans. They make up just five percent of the population.

"This issue for me is an issue of equity, fairness and most importantly it's an issue of respect," said Cohen.

Doulas are non-medical birth coaches who provide emotional and physical support to an expectant mother, and can act as liaisons between the mother and the doctors. But doulas can be expensive.

Under the plan, low-income mothers would have access to them.

"There are people who clearly need more than they are getting. And that is true of our black moms and our Pacific Islander moms. This is one thing we are doing to correct that," said Dr. Ayanna Bennett of the San Francisco Health Department.

"Sometimes women don't understand what the doctor is talking about. Sometimes they need that support. Someone to ask questions they are not thinking about," said Marna Armstead, who has been a doula for the past 12 years. 

The program is privately financed but will be run by the San Francisco Public Health Department.

Nationwide, black mothers die in childbirth at three times the rate of white mothers in the United States.

Part of the program will be to recruit and train African-Americans and Pacific Islanders as doulas and have them work with those families.

"You get strong mothers and strong babies. It is something that creates a ripple effect and creates a stronger community.

The doula program is slated to begin in January.