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‘It’s a crisis': Midwest lawmakers back Momnibus Act to curb Black maternal mortality

Maternal mortality is on the rise among women in the U.S., and Black women are disproportionately affected.
AndreyPopov/Getty Images
Maternal mortality is on the rise among women in the U.S., and Black women are disproportionately affected.

Representatives from Illinois, Kansas and Missouri are part of the caucus behind a package of bills that would promote healthy outcomes for Black mothers, who die from pregnancy-related causes at far higher rates than women of other races.

Krystal Anderson, 40, died after the stillbirth of her daughter in March. But for the fact that she was a longtime Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader and a popular figure in her community, the Leawood, Kansas resident would likely have joined the ranks of Black women lost to maternal mortality whose names are known only to their loved ones.

Anderson experienced sepsis, a childbirth complication that can be fatal. Sepsis occurs when the immune system has a dangerous reaction to an infection. In Anderson’s case, it triggered complete lung, liver and kidney failure. She and her husband, Clayton Anderson, had already lost a child to stillbirth: a son in 2022.

Clayton Anderson told ABC News: "One of the issues that I guess I have with the system overall is Krystal is 40, and she's Black, and we'd had a loss before, but even then they say you know, you can't start a plan with maternal-fetal medicine or the high-risk maternity doctors until you get to week 14."

Monique Shaw is a doula and a senior program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Monique Shaw is a doula and a senior program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Maternal mortality is growing across races and ethnicities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1,200 women died from a condition or complications related to pregnancy in 2021. Just two years earlier, that number was about 750.

And the problem is not affecting everyone at the same rate. Black women are about three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes.

“It's really not the individual level factors that are at the root cause of the current crisis,” said Monique Shaw, a senior program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization that supports health equity initiatives. “What we're seeing is racism and discrimination within the healthcare setting.”

Underlying health conditions can often go undetected when an expectant mother cannot afford or access prenatal care and health care services after the pregnancy ends.

“We see that disparities are caused by the lack of widespread access to healthcare coverage, and care that is respectful care. These are systemic and structural issues” Shaw said.

Aboard the Momnibus

Lawmakers from several Midwestern states are part of the U.S. House of Representatives caucus behind the Black Maternal Momnibus Act of 2023, a collection of bills that addresses the problem of Black maternal mortality from several public health policy angles.

The act comprises 13 measures, including support for mothers with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and investment in factors that influence maternal health outcomes like housing, transportation, and nutrition.

“I think of this as a crisis,” said Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, who’s a backer of the Momnibus. “And when you're talking about a health crisis, I think it requires a holistic approach.”

Davids is among the more than one hundred members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, which includes Midwestern lawmakers Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, and Reps. Nikki Budzinski, and Jonathan L. Jackson of Illinois.

Although the caucus is currently composed entirely of Democrats, a piece of Momnibus legislation called the Protecting Moms Who Served Act passed with bipartisan support in 2021. Signed into law by President Biden, the measure increases funding for programs to improve maternal health care for veterans.

Elizabeth Dawes, a director at progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said Black maternal mortality should not be a political issue and the Momnibus Act merits bipartisan support.

“The bills individually will accomplish a lot,” Dawes said. “(The Act) is a comprehensive type of policy change that American moms need. Ideally, this will get passed, and soon.”

The Century Foundation offers a tool for tracking the progress of the Momnibus Act.

Davids is guardedly optimistic.

“If I want to be realistic, I can say we've had quite a bit of turmoil in the current Congress,” she said. “But there are still things getting passed. There are still pieces of legislation, even bipartisan pieces of legislation, that are getting passed out of the House.”

In Kansas, a Black woman is nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than a white woman. Black expectant mothers in other Midwestern states face similar odds.

In February, Davids convened a conversation about Black maternal mortality among parents and health care professionals at Vibrant Health, a Kansas City, Kansas, clinic. She said the personal stories she heard confirmed her belief that the crisis must be tackled.

“You know, the United States is the only industrialized country where we have a maternal mortality rate that's increasing,” Davids said. “It's one of those areas where we just have to do better.”

Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas discusses Black maternal mortality causes and solutions at Vibrant Health, a Kansas City, Kansas clinic, during a February 2024 event.
Vibrant Health
Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas discusses Black maternal mortality causes and solutions at Vibrant Health, a Kansas City, Kansas clinic, during a February 2024 event.

Davids and her caucus colleagues, all of whom are Democrats, take credit for securing $100 million for new maternal health funding and Momnibus priorities.

“The Back Maternal Health Momnibus is a comprehensive way to address every dimension of the maternal health crisis,” Davids said. “Investing in research data collection, growing the perinatal medical workforce. And then improving overall healthcare access.”

In his proclamation of Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17), President Biden touted this Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis, which outlines his administration’s strategy to curb maternal mortality and improve maternal health.

“(The problem) is in no small part because of a long history of systemic racism and bias,” reads the proclamation. “Studies show that when Black women suffer from severe injuries or pregnancy complications or simply ask for assistance, they are often dismissed or ignored in the health care settings that are supposed to care for them.”

Momentum for mamas

A number of organizations, from grassroots groups and small businesses to well-funded institutions like the Robert Woods Foundation, are banding together to bring public awareness to Black maternal health.

The Black Mamas Matter Alliance counts more than 40 partners around the country and has brought momentum to Black Maternal Health Week through social media campaigns, community engagement, and events around the country.

Black Maternal Health Week runs from April 11 to April 17
Black Mamas Matter Alliance
Black Maternal Health Week runs from April 11 to April 17.

The alliance’s chief goals are driving policy change, shifting cultural attitudes about Black maternal health, and amplifying “the voices of Black mamas.”

One of the BMMA partners is Jamaa Birth Village, a midwifery clinic in Ferguson, Missouri.

As reported by STLPR, St. Louis city officials are partnering with Jamaa Birth Village to increase awareness of the importance of Black doulas in the birthing process.

“It helps to have other successful Black women who've gone through the birthing process to pass on that knowledge to Black mothers that are currently going through the process [and act] as advocates and also as peer mentors,” said Bobie Williams of the St. Louis Department of Health in an interview with STLPR.

Superstars, like Beyonce, Serena Williams and Allyson Felix, have all shared personal stories about facing pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Shaw said amplifying the stories of women from all walks of life can help improve the odds for Black mothers.

“I think what you see is so many women really beginning to share the stories about their experiences with racism and discrimination in the healthcare setting, their experiences with feeling unheard,” she said. “They’re coming forth to say their concerns are oftentimes ignored. And I think it's important that we hear these stories.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Do you have a tip or question for us? Email midwestnewsroom@kcur.org.

Contact: hollyedgell@kcur.org
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