‘We have an emergency’: U.S. House panel examines Black mothers, babies dying in Michigan

U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — Black mothers and babies are dying at staggering rates in Michigan and throughout the United States.  

The national statistics are alarming: Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). American Indian women are also more than twice as likely to die due to pregnancy-related issues than white women. 

Overall, American women are more likely to die from causes related to childbirth or pregnancy than in any other developed nation, according to the CDC. Research has suggested that about half of those deaths are preventable. 

The problem has gotten worse. Nationwide, maternal mortality rates more than doubled in the United States between 1990 and 2013, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

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The nation’s preterm birth rate has also been on the rise, with Black women impacted disproportionately. In 2018, the overall preterm birth rate rose for the fourth consecutive year, according to Stacey Stewart, president and CEO of the March of Dimes. The preterm birth rate among Black women is 49% higher than the rate among all other women.

“We have an emergency going on in America right now,” U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) said Tuesday at a hearing before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee. 

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens | Ken Coleman

“For every woman that has lost their life, for every family bearing that burden, for every woman who’s come too close to losing her life, crying out in pain, this is senseless and these are injustices,” Stevens said. “We talk about life being precious. I cannot think of a better instance of the sanctity and preciousness of life than this, than the life of the mother.” 

Michigan ranks 30th out of 50 states in terms of the highest maternal mortality rates. The state had a maternal death rate of 27.6 per 100,000 live births from 2013 to 2017, according to federal data released by America’s Health Rankings. 

That’s slightly better than the national average of 29.6 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. 

The state has also received low marks in a recent analysis of preterm births. 

Michigan received a C on the March of Dimes’ 2019 report card assessing infant and maternal health. Between 2015 and 2017, 10% of babies were born preterm in the state. And the preterm birth rate among Black women in the state was 57% higher than the rate among all other women.

Image by travisdmchenry from Pixabay

Nationwide, the infant mortality rate for Black women’s babies was more than twice the rates among white, Asian and Hispanic women in 2017, according to U.S. News and World Report. More than a third of infant deaths that year were tied to preterm birth.

‘Not partisan issues’ 

Members of Congress and witnesses pointed to a variety of reasons for the racial disparities and the troubling mortality rates. Among them: implicit bias, a lack of access to quality health care and a lack of adequate health insurance. 

Joia Crear-Perry, an obstetrician and the founder of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, pointed to racism as a key factor. 

“The legacy of a hierarchy of human value based upon the color of our skin continues to cause differences in health outcomes, including maternal mortality,” she said. “Racism is the risk factor, not my black skin.”

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She and other witnesses urged lawmakers to swiftly enact legislation to address the crisis. 

“We cannot wait to take action, because the state of maternal and child health in our nation is not fine,” said Stewart. “It’s not fine that 700 new moms die each year because of pregnancy complications. It’s not fine that babies of color die at rates far higher than white babies. It’s not fine that families must make a choice between earning a paycheck and working in conditions that put the health of mom and baby in danger.”

Ultimately, Crear-Perry said, “What Black women in the U.S. need is accountability. We need to know that our lives are valued. This accountability may be complicated, but government still has an obligation to act. Racism, classism and gender oppression are killing all of us, from rural to urban America.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin at the NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) called it “simply outrageous and unacceptable that so many women and babies of color die at disproportionate rates in this country.” He pointed to “structural racism” as part of the problem. “We need to be able to talk about racism in this country,” he said. 

Republicans on the committee indicated a willingness to pursue legislation with the Democratic majority on the issues, although some urged caution when shaping new policies and others expressed concerns about expanding access to abortions. 

“Bringing a child into the world should be an exciting and joyful time for women and families, not one clouded by fear and by worry,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.). He said that because the causes of the trends are unclear, Congress should be careful about imposing government mandates that may not solve the problems. 

Tim Walberg

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) said, “I can never support the fact that abortion is a good choice for a woman or a child or society, because it again reduces the value of human life itself. I understand there’s disagreement on that.” Still, he said, “there’s a lot of things we can agree on and move forward.” 

Even during a time when bipartisan compromise has become rare on Capitol Hill, North Carolina Democratic U.S. Rep. Alma Adams said that maternal and infant health “are not partisan issues.” 

She said the federal government “must do more” to stop the maternal and infant health crisis in the United States. She called for legislation that addresses disparities in maternal and infant health while expanding access to health care and nutrition programs. 

Adams added, “I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that any mother anywhere in the United States can receive the quality care and support she needs to navigate a healthy pregnancy and raise a healthy child.”