On Thursday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing examining the serious issue of maternal mortality, specifically focusing on the racial disparities in maternal outcomes. Not only does the U.S. have the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths of any industrialized country, but that number has actually been on the rise for the past three decades, reports the Los Angeles Times.
In 2019, the U.S. maternal mortality rate was 20.1 per 100,000 live births. It’s estimated that one-third of the people who die due to childbirth do during pregnancy, one-third die while giving birth or during the week after, and the last third die because of complications in the year subsequent to giving birth. The CDC estimates that three out of every five of those deaths are preventable.
Black people account for a disproportionate number of those deaths related to childbirth—the maternal mortality rate for Black women is 44 deaths per 100,000 live births, over two times the rate of white maternal mortality (17.9 deaths per 100,000 live births). “How does one of the most medically advanced nations in the world continue to fail Black birthing people at such high rates?” asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, during Thursday’s hearing. “To understand, we have to take the blinders off our history and acknowledge that our healthcare system — including reproductive healthcare — was built on a legacy of systemic racism and the mistreatment of Black people, and that this legacy continues today.”
And it’s not just Black people who give birth who have a higher mortality rate than their white counterparts—the same disparity is present in Black infant mortality. According to the latest data, the U.S. has an infant mortality rate of 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, but for Black newborns that rate jumps to 10.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to a rate of 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births for white newborns. In other words, Black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies.
During Thursday’s Congressional hearing, Rep. Cori Bush testified about her personal experience in childbirth, sharing a truly harrowing story about going into preterm labor at only 23 weeks while pregnant with her first child after her doctor dismissed her reports of severe pain and nausea. When she gave birth to her son, Zion, he was only one pound and three ounces.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans responded more strongly to Rep. Bush’s choice to use the gender-inclusive phrasing “Black birthing people” instead of “Black mothers” than the heartbreaking story she was telling about her own experiences with medical racism that nearly led to the death of both of her children.
Congressional Democrats are reportedly planning to include legislation focused on maternal health in Biden’s infrastructure and tax bill that expected to pass later this year. The Democratic package of bills would invest in training more doulas, midwives, and OBGYNs, as well as improving access to maternal mental healthcare, telehealth options, and community health centers. The legislative package is also expected to include additional funding for racial bias training, specifically in relation to healthcare disparities.
“Every day Black women are subjected to harsh and racist treatment during pregnancy and childbirth,” said Rep. Bush during her testimony on Thursday. “Every day Black women die because the system denies our humanity.” She continued, “I am committed to doing the absolute most to protect Black mothers, to protect Black babies, to protect Black birthing people, and to save lives.”