This story is part of SELF’s ongoing series exploring black maternal mortality. You can find the rest of the series here.
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.
We’ve got hundreds of caucuses in Congress—everything from a bourbon caucus to a bicycle caucus—but we never had a caucus to address the health and well-being of black pregnant women. It was time to do it. I’m happy that it’s on the table and that we have people around the table who have pledged to work with us.
SELF: What kind of support have you received on both sides of the aisle?
Rep. Adams: There’s a lot of bipartisan support. The health care issues that we’re talking about affect black women, but all black women aren’t Democrats. This is not a partisan issue. So, we are trying to look at how we can best serve women, regardless of their party affiliation. We’re all working together. If we all put pieces into this pot, we’re going to have a really good package that will address the issues we need to be focused on.
SELF: It’s comforting to hear that the House and the Senate are working together on this, too.
Rep. Adams: Yeah, you don’t hear a lot of that. All you hear on the outside is that we don’t agree on anything, but I assure you, that is not the case. We agree on a lot.
SELF: Since you co-founded the Caucus in April, what have your early successes been?
Rep. Adams: We have all of these organizations working with us, like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and people like midwives who have been working in this field. We’ve got folks who are directing us to the right resources, and they are sharing reliable data to help us get to the solution. There are also the two maternal health bills passed in the Energy and Commerce Committee that will expand access and improve the quality of care.
We’ve been able to get folks in Congress to agree that this is a problem. That really gets us off to a good start. Most of the time, in Congress, when we are caught in a place where we can’t get something done, it’s because we can’t get people to agree that there is a problem, or we can’t convince them that the problem can be solved.
SELF: Can you put into words why it’s so important to address black maternal health?
Rep. Adams: I can’t think of anything more important for us to try to solve. It’s critical that mothers are in good health and that their children are also born healthy. Good health can lead to a good life.
Originally Published by Self Magazine