“I kept saying: ‘Is she OK? Is she all right?' Nobody said a word. I have never heard a room so silent in my life.” This chilling testimony comes from Simone Landrum, telling a New York Times reporter about her experience losing her child, and nearly her own life, during birth. Her story reflects the black maternal and infant mortality crisis that is happening across the United States — and persisting right here in Pennsylvania.
As of 2013, from the most recently available data, black women made up 11 percent of women in Pennsylvania, yet accounted for 31 percent of all pregnancy-related maternal deaths. Black women comprised three-quarters of all pregnancy-related deaths in Philadelphia between 2010 and 2012. Nationwide, black mothers are more than three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts, and more than twice as likely as women of other races. And higher socioeconomic class does not reduce these health risks. We have heard this firsthand from Serena Williams, who almost died giving birth to her daughter. It’s time we start having real conversations about how to support the wellness of black mothers and their babies.
With the new legislative session approaching, the Pennsylvania legislature must put black women’s health on the top of its list. To make change on this public health crisis at the state level, legislators should look to community members and model federal legislation such as the MOMMA Act, introduced as state legislation in Illinois. The MOMMA Act would require equitable access to prenatal care and cultural competency training for medical staff, and enforce current national emergency obstetric protocols to ensure that best practices are being used, while eliminating practices that don’t benefit the mother. This legislation expands coverage for postpartum care under Medicaid for up to a year, and aims to support mothers in obtaining care for issues like postpartum depression after childbirth. It provides Pennsylvania a solid policy framework to adopt at the state level.
We also have work to do at the city level. Between 2010 and 2012, Philadelphia had a maternal mortality rate 53 percent higher than the national average. Many impacted live below the poverty line and experience a range of disproportionate health disparities and risk factors. Across income levels, black women face barriers to accessing comprehensive health care and coverage. We also struggle to find culturally competent and responsive doctors, all while navigating health care systems where racism is at play, and where black providers are underrepresented.
On Saturday, Philadelphia community members came together to do something about it. People gathered at the Lucien Blackwell Branch Library in West Philly for a panel and discussion called “Why Are Black Mothers and Babies Dying, and What Can We Do About It?” Panelists included Lexi White, local commissioner and senior policy manager for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, where I am currently a reproductive justice Fellow advocating for the sexual and reproductive health of black women, girls, and LGBTQ people of color. Lexi noted that in addition to more comprehensive data about how environmental racism and embodied stress is at play in this epidemic, we also need to expand equitable coverage for a full range of pregnancy and maternal health services, including doula and midwifery care. Medical and family leave policies, along with resources for young parents and other caregivers, are also crucial.
To be clear, the death of any mother or baby should be prevented at all costs, no matter their race. But the reality is that black women face the greatest danger when they deliver their children. And when tragedies impact women of color, specifically black women, the problem is too often ignored. It’s time for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and our elected leaders at all levels of government to start taking an interest in the lives of black mothers and babies the same way our communities do.
Mashayla Hays is a reproductive justice fellow at New Voices and the Women’s Law Project in Pittsburgh.