Honoring Mothers By Saving Their Lives

“I almost died after giving birth to my daughter, Olympia. Yet I consider myself fortunate . . . Every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.”

When tennis champion Serena Williams started speaking out about her life-threatening complications after childbirth, she became one of a growing number of voices drawing attention to a national health crisis. About 700 mothers die each year in the United States due to pregnancy-related causes, and 50,000–60,000 more experience significant short- or long-term health problems resulting from labor or delivery. Many of the leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths, including cardiovascular conditions, preeclampsia and eclampsia, and hemorrhage, are often preventable or treatable. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rates of any developed country, and Black women are more likely than white women to die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The Congressional Black Maternal Health Caucus was formed in 2019 to elevate the Black maternal health crisis and advance policy solutions to improve maternal health outcomes and end disparities. They explain: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in America are preventable. For every woman who dies, 70 experience ‘near misses’: cases of severe maternal morbidity that lead to significant short- or long-term consequences to a woman’s health. While maternal mortality rates fell 44 percent around the world from 1990–2015, maternal mortality in the United States increased by 16.7 percent, making the United States the only developed country with a rising maternal mortality rate. In fact, the only countries with rising maternal death rates are the United States, Afghanistan, and Sudan. As alarming as these statistics are overall, the situation is even more dire for Black women, who are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. Black women are also twice as likely to lose an infant to premature death.”

Many factors have contributed to these shameful statistics, most related to inequities in our health care system and embedded in the social and physical determinants of health that affect quality of life outcomes and risks. Black women are more likely to be uninsured, have chronic conditions, and/or live in rural areas. A Black woman is also less likely to have access to prenatal care, which has a profound effect on the health of both mother and baby. But income and access to care alone don’t explain the disparity in maternal mortality rates. For Black women, disparities in access to income and care are often compounded by unconscious biases that permeate our health care system and affect quality of care. As the Black Maternal Health Caucus puts it, “The causes are complex and include coverage gaps, social determinants of health, and other factors, but racism is a driving force: even a Black woman with a college degree is more likely to die from giving birth than a white woman without a high school diploma.”

These longstanding disparities must be solved now. We are at a critical moment when attention to women’s and mothers’ health cannot wait. The Black Maternal Health Caucus spearheaded the federal Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a legislative package that includes comprehensive policy proposals to address the racism and inequities at the root of our Black maternal health crisis in the U.S. and improve maternal health outcomes overall. The Children’s Defense Fund is among more than 250 organizations that have endorsed the Momnibus. President Biden signed the first of the bills into law in November 2021, the bipartisan Protecting Moms Who Serve Act, which will help ensure veterans receive the high-quality maternal health care and support they have earned. Major provisions from nine more of the Momnibus bills were included in the Build Back Better Act that passed the House, including new investments for growing and diversifying the perinatal workforce, addressing social determinants of health like housing, nutrition, and environmental conditions, expanding access to maternal mental health care, and more. Congress must keep working to make these investments a reality.

The U.S. should not be leading the rest of the developed world in maternal mortality. Solutions are available. How can we not act? As we celebrate Mother’s Day this year, let’s honor Black mothers and all mothers by protecting their health and their lives.