Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Lauren Underwood (D-IL) officially launched the first-ever Black Maternal Health Caucus on Tuesday, in hopes of tackling one of the widest racial disparities in health care today. Back women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than their white counterparts.
The public health crisis has been getting more national attention recently, thanks in part to an award-winning ProPublica/NPR series on the soaring maternal mortality rate and celebrity testimonies from Serena Williams and Beyoncé on their own harrowing experiences.
The Black Maternal Health Caucus, which already has more than 30 members, was created to research and push for policies that are culturally competent.
“This year, we decided enough is enough,” said Adams at a press conference.
There aren’t many House caucuses created to primarily serve the black community. Last Congress, there were only four. The most recent addition was the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, which was launched in 2016.
For Underwood, a nurse and former health official under the Obama administration, the health crisis is personal. Shalon Irving, who died shortly after childbirth and is featured in the ProPublic/NPR series, was her classmate at Johns Hopkins.
“It demands unique congressional attention,” said Underwood.
It’s also personal for Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who mentioned during the press conference that her mom nearly died giving birth to her. Because of legal segregation, her mother wasn’t able to go to the white-only hospital, she said. Lee plans to work with the new caucus on a strategy to get bills passed while also serving as a member of a subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services. Lee and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) were the only House leadership present Tuesday.
The new health caucus will be working with advocates like Black Mamas Matter Alliance, which has been discussing the maternal mortality crisis for some time. The group has outlined a list of priorities for members of Congress to consider: include black women leaders and black-led organizations when writing legislation, eliminate abuse and mistreatment in health care, and push for financial access to high quality care. The group also urges members of Congress to actually cite racism as the reason why black women are dying during or shortly after child birth.
“What happens with legislation that doesn’t name disparities and doesn’t name racism as a contributing factor — whatever comes out of that is unlikely to address it,” said Elizabeth Dawes Gay, the co-director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Last year, Congress unanimously passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, which authorizes nearly $60 million each year beginning 2019 through 2023 for states to establish maternal health review committees. But activist groups that helped push the bill forward, like March for Moms, agree this shouldn’t be the end of federal action. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists President Dr. Lisa Hollier called the new law “an amazing first step.”
The new caucus seeks to build on that progress, and help address disparities in local efforts to tackle maternal mortality.
California is often praised as being a great example of what happens when leaders take maternal deaths seriously. After state officials formed a review committee and acted on its recommendations, the state began to buck the nationwide trend:
SOURCE: State of California, Department of Public Health, California Birth and Death Statistical Master Files, 1999-2013.
While California has seen maternal mortality rates decline significantly, racial disparity figures are still comparable to those of the entire country, noted Dawes Gay. Indeed, its review board says as much: “Despite such progress, African-American women continued to be 3.8 times more likely to die in 2011-2013, compared to White women.” (Nationwide, black women die at a rate 3 to 4 times higher than white women, according to the most recent federal data.)
“When you are not centering black women, and that means black mamas, in programs and policies then you are not going to address the disparities and we are going to continue to have a problem,” said Dawes Gay.
A few 2020 presidential candidates have talked about the nation’s high maternal mortality rate. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has gone further than most by introducing legislation to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality and incentivize states to address implicit bias within maternal care through grants. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have co-sponsored the bill. Gillibrand also introduced her own bill that creates a new grant program to help hospitals practice safe maternal health measures. Harris and Booker co-sponsored her bill.
Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t mentioned the crisis. He didn’t even tweet about the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act when he signed it into law. Instead, that day, he tweeted about the U.S.-Mexico border wall.