Dems turn black maternal deaths into powerful 2020 issue

Dems turn black maternal deaths into powerful 2020 issue
© iStock

Democratic presidential candidates led by Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris faces pressure to define policy proposals Harris voices support for Puerto Rico protesters: 'I stand with them' What to expect when Mueller testifies: Not much MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris faces pressure to define policy proposals Harris voices support for Puerto Rico protesters: 'I stand with them' Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters MORE (Mass.) are talking about an issue that hasn’t historically received much attention on the campaign trail: the high rates of pregnancy-related deaths among black women.

For black women — a key voting bloc in the Democratic Party — issues of maternal mortality and racial disparities in health care have particular resonance, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of the top 2020 candidates, including Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandHarris faces pressure to define policy proposals Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage MORE (D-N.Y.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Cory Booker talks about 'geeking out' over Rosario Dawson's Marvel role Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals MORE (D-N.J.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBullock: I would not have endorsed health care for undocumented immigrants on debate stage Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals Biden campaign rips 'Medicare for All,' calls on Dems to protect Affordable Care Act MORE (I-Vt.)

ADVERTISEMENT

Warren and Harris have made addressing the issue a core part of their platforms, appealing to black women whose support is critical to winning the Democratic primary.

“We are facing a maternal mortality crisis in America,” Warren wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday in Essence, a magazine geared toward black women. “And for Black moms, particularly those living in rural areas, it’s an epidemic.”

The U.S. has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths among industrialized countries, partly because of the prevalence of C-sections that can lead to life-threatening complications and underlying, chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

Compared with countries like the U.K. and Canada, the U.S. is the only one with a rising maternal mortality rate — 14 deaths per 100,000 births in 2015, the most recent annual data.

That rate is almost double the rate of 7.2 deaths in 1987, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ADVERTISEMENT

And black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Though experts have yet to agree on the reason for that disparity, they cite a number of potential causes, including reports of discrimination against black women in hospitals and incidents of doctors and nurses not listening to their patients or making assumptions based on race.

The issue has gained considerable attention in recent years with groups like MomsRising, the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and March of Dimes pushing for change in Congress and in state legislatures and calling for more accountability in the health care system.

Now, presidential candidates are also drawing attention to it as they aggressively court the African American vote, particularly in key primary states like South Carolina.

Some states key to winning the Democratic nomination in 2020 also have the highest maternal mortality rates — including South Carolina, Florida, Michigan and Iowa.

Black women were a key voting bloc in the 2018 midterms, helping to launch House Democrats back into the majority, with exit polls showing 94 percent voted for Democrats.

At last week’s She the People event, which was billed as the first ever presidential forum for women of color, maternal mortality was a top issue.

Harris, Gillibrand and Booker have all introduced bills to address pregnancy-related deaths in some way.

Harris’s proposal is focused on reducing health disparities in maternal health and is supported by Gillibrand, Sanders and Booker.

Harris has become one of the most outspoken advocates for reducing pregnancy-related deaths among black women, leading 18 of her Senate colleagues in a resolution recognizing “Black Maternal Health Week” in April.

Asked about her agenda for black America at last week’s CNN town hall, Harris launched into her plans to address pregnancy-related deaths among black women.

“It is … a matter of racial bias in the health care delivery system. Those women are not taken as seriously when they show up at the clinic or the doctor’s office or the hospital,” Harris said.

Gillibrand’s proposal, which is co-sponsored by Booker and Harris, would direct the federal government to develop and update best practices for maternal safety, and it would create a grant for states and hospitals to implement the new requirements.

Booker’s bill, backed by Harris and Gillibrand, would extend and expand Medicaid coverage to mothers for one year after pregnancy.

Sanders, who struggled to win over black voters in his failed run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, has also talked about black maternal mortality in his campaign, tweeting last month that “we must take on racial disparities in America.”

Other Democratic candidates who have talked about the issue include South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash MORE, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage Protect American patients and innovation from a harmful MedTech Tax increase MORE (Minn.).

Warren’s plan would implement a system that would track mortality rates of black mothers at hospitals, rewarding those that show reduced mortality.

Monifa Bandele, senior vice president and head of maternal justice campaigns at MomsRising, said groups like hers welcome the attention by 2020 candidates, and said they were closely tracking what they were saying about the issue.

“This is hugely important — we’ve heard from black people and they know they’re experiencing inferior health care,” said Bandele. “To hear that spoken, to hear that affirmed, is very important to us and everyone in our community.”