Heading into the fourth annual Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17) campaign, founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, we are reminded of the shameful statistics around Black maternal health in our country:
Black birthing people are 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white birthing people, no matter their socioeconomic status.
The United States spends more on health care than any other country and yet it has among the worst disparities in maternal health outcomes.
As Senior Director of Reproductive Rights overseeing SiX’s Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, I’ve been able to witness firsthand the diversity of state legislative work advancing Black maternal health and what brings Black women legislators to the work. Black women show up in statehouses as mothers, sisters, friends, and caretakers, committed to protecting our community. Black women legislators are leading the charge to ensure safety for Black birthing people, knowing that even one loss is one too many. However, their efforts alone can only go so far. Despite our continued ability to impact election outcomes and safeguard our democracy, Black women are still grossly underrepresented in state capitols. As a new report from SiX and NOBEL Women shows, there remain too few Black women in state legislatures -- just 4.82%. And yet, against these tremendous odds, Black women legislators are speaking out and pushing for change for Black maternal health outcomes in their states. We often talk about the magic of Black women and this magic radiates within the Black women in statehouses across the country.
Massachusetts Rep. Liz Miranda, who recently passed an Act to Reduce Racial Disparities in Maternal Health, explains how her identities as Black woman and state legislator showed up for her in a very real way. During her statehouse freshman orientation (where she was one of only two Black women in the room), in a presentation on infant and maternal health outcomes in her state, offered devastating information:
Of the 10 zip codes that they mentioned as having troubling birth outcomes, 6 of them were in Rep. Miranda’s district.
Hearing this, Rep. Miranda shivered.
Before this presentation, Rep. Miranda didn’t know how to name what happened to her sister, her mother, her best friend, and so many other birthing people in her community because of structural racism.
Walking out of the presentation, Rep. Miranda knew, like many Black women and women-presenting legislators, that the issue of Black maternal health is HER issue to lead on and to win
For other Black women legislators, like Tennessee Rep. London Lamar, their leadership on Black maternal health work originated through personal experiences of family and their own pregnancy experiences. Rep. Lamar took these experiences and channeled them into a series of bills to address infant and maternal mortality. Her resolution to recognize doulas as vital members of the childbirth team has already passed through the House.
We’re seeing inspiring work across the nation from legislators like Rep. Kamia Brown whose proposed Medicaid extension bill would cover pregnant women for one year (up from three months) after they deliver their babies; from Assemblymember Clara Thomas who is working to revise and strengthen Nevada’s maternal mortality review board, ensuring attention is paid to racial health outcomes; and Michigan Sen. Erica Geiss who is working on legislation to improve access to (and Medicaid/insurance coverage of) doula care.
And yet we can’t forget the oppressive power structures that Black women legislators are up against daily. Kentucky Rep. Attica Scott -- who along with other Kentucky legislators has introduced a package of 21 bills under the Kentucky Mother and Infant Health Project, recognizing that maternal health disparities are a racial justice issue -- put it this way in her Q&A with Brown Girls Guide to Politics:
“When I decided I wanted to introduce the Maternal Care Act, I began discussing racial and gender health disparities with my colleagues. It resonated with some of my Democratic colleagues, but not necessarily with all women. In fact, the chair of the committee where the bill was assigned is a white woman, a mother. Health disparities had never impacted her or her family’s lives the way they have mine. She was not interested in giving the bill a hearing. She didn’t even let the conversation on health disparities happen in her committee.”
This work is not Black women’s work alone, and until we all learn to fight better -- electing more Black women to state legislatures -- and learn to fight differently -- with broad, intersectional, justice-focused policies -- we’re stuck in the oppressive, racist, sexist dynamics.
Support the vital work of eradicating racial inequalities in maternal outcomes by sharing these legislator quotes on social media April 11-17 and stay up-to-date on all Black Maternal Health Week activities by following the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Jennifer Driver is the Senior Director of Reproductive Rights at the State Innovation Exchange. Jennifer is an award-winning reproductive health, rights, and justice policy and advocacy leader with nearly 15 years in the field. Her work centers on addressing systems that add burdens or barriers to accessing full reproductive health information and services— paying particular attention to communities of color, immigrants, system-involved youth, and LGBTQ communities.
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