Discussions about black maternal mortality often center on depressing statistics, like the fact that the maternal mortality rate is 42.8 deaths per 100,000 live births for black non-Hispanic women in the United States compared with 13 deaths per 100,000 live births for non-Hispanic white women. That focus makes sense—we need to face the problem in order to properly address it.
But there are glimmers of hope, too, that deserve some time in the spotlight and can buoy us as we fight for change. One big one: The fact that about 60 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another: There are people working hard to make preventing those deaths a reality.
In April, Congresswomen Alma S. Adams (NC-12) and Lauren Underwood (IL-14) founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus, a congressional committee with over 70 members who are working to raise awareness and steer policy that can reduce black maternal complications and deaths. Congresswoman Adams co-sponsored the Maternal Health Quality Improvement Act of 2019, and Congresswoman Underwood was a co-sponsor of the Helping MOMS Act, both of which passed in the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee in November.
The bills, which still need to pass in the House of Representatives and the Senate, would do things like extend access to health care in rural areas, introduce programs to tackle racial and ethnic inequities, provide grants for implicit bias training programs among health care staff, and introduce a new state plan option to extend Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) for one year after giving birth. The latter could be instrumental in preventing some of the 33 percent of maternal deaths that happen within one week to one year of delivery.
Congresswoman Underwood has spoken publicly about how the death of her close friend Shalon Irving in 2017 made this issue personal for her. For Congresswoman Alma Adams, black maternal mortality hits close to home as well. Below, Congresswoman Adams shares her reasons for co-founding the Caucus, the responses she’s gotten across the aisle, and why we all need to recognize how much black mothers matter.
SELF: Do you have a personal connection to this issue?
Rep. Adams: Yes. I have one daughter, one son, and four grandchildren. My daughter had a difficult pregnancy with her son, who is now 18. She also had a difficult pregnancy with her daughter, who is now 13. With my granddaughter, she was having pain. She tried to get medical help but wasn’t treated. She actually had to have a cesarean at the last minute, and she almost died.
There wasn’t an issue in terms of her not having adequate health care, and economically, she was in a pretty good place. But there were still issues that came up just as she was getting ready to give birth, and the literature on the topic says that it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background is. These kinds of complications happen, and black women experience them more than other women. So, as a grandmother and as a mother, I’m very concerned.
SELF: What made you and Representative Underwood decide to found the Black Maternal Health Caucus?
Rep. Adams: We started the Caucus because we want to be of some help to African-American women and other women of color. We thought it was important to raise awareness about what’s happening. We’re working to bring our colleagues together in partnership with other organizations, like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, who are actually working on the ground in this field.