The Fight to End the Black Maternal Health Crisis

By Sen. Kamala Harris

The coronavirus pandemic has blown the lid off something many of us have known our entire lives: that there are deep racial disparities in our country’s health care system.

As we recognize Black Maternal Health Week, which takes place annually from April 11 – 17, we must speak the truth about America’s history of health disparities that existed long before the coronavirus pandemic, including the grave ongoing crisis of Black maternal mortality.

We must acknowledge that there are two problems when it comes to Black maternal mortality: ongoing systematic disparities and implicit bias. And we need solutions to address both.

Every day, pregnant women walk into their doctor’s office for check-ups, advice, and treatment; but that experience is very different for Black women. Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes and twice as likely to suffer from life-threatening pregnancy-related complications. These disparities persist regardless of one’s income or education level. So, while this is a stressful time for any expectant mother, the potential ramifications that come with giving birth during a pandemic – and specifically a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting African Americans – is of particular concern to Black women.

We already know that people who have certain underlying health conditions are more at risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19. Sadly, data shows that Black people are 20 percent more likely to have asthma than our white counterparts. We are 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. And for Black women, we are three times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that medical professionals warn could increase one’s chances of getting any kind of infection. Black women can’t afford not to be heard when their lives and babies are on the line, but they especially can’t afford to be shut out when we are going through a pandemic.

During Black History Month, I convened a group of women and men in the Bay Area in California, where I heard stories of women who have walked into their doctor’s office and reported that they were experiencing pain, only to be sent home without assistance. We’ve heard similar stories from even the most well-known figures like Serena Williams. These women came from different backgrounds, with varying income and educational levels, but have one thing in common- their voices were not heard.

It is clear now more than ever: we need solutions to address these problems.

That is why, this year, I was proud to partner with Rep. Lauren Underwood and Rep. Alma Adams to introduce the Black Maternal Health Momnibus. This historic package of bills that would tackle systemic health disparities by making much-needed investments in social determinants that influence maternal health outcomes, like housing, transportation, and nutrition. It calls for more diversity in the perinatal workforce, so every mom is provided with inclusive care. The Momnibus will make investments to ensure all women- including women veterans and incarcerated women- have access to resources and support, including doula services. This bill also provides funding for digital tools to improve maternal health outcomes, no matter where you live.

Additionally, I have re-introduced the Maternal CARE Act, which will help prevent persistent biases and shortcomings in our nation’s medical system that have contributed to the ongoing crisis in Black maternal mortality. My bill will create a new $25 million program to direct funding to medical schools, nursing schools, and other health professional training programs to implement training to reduce errors in judgment or behavior among our health care professionals.

We can’t let up the fight to address maternal mortality in America – especially right now. When we address both the systematic disparities and implicit bias in both our society and our health care system, we can get to the point where being Black and pregnant is full of joy and free from fear of preventable death.

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