By Steven Monacelli
On April 13, a handful of national political leaders gathered over a live video stream to discuss the purpose of the fifth annual Black Maternal Health Week, an initiative led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and the various efforts that are ongoing to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women.
President Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Alma Adams, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, Senator Cory Booker, and Congresswoman Ayanna Presley were brought together with a handful of maternal health reform advocates like Dr. Jamila Taylor, the director of health care reform and senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
“What does centering Black mamas and Black systems of care look like?” asked Dr. Jamila Taylor at the beginning of the panel. “It looks like a country in which Black women are no longer three times as likely to die of pregnancy related causes. It looks like a world in which Black women are listened to when they express pain or discomfort to medical professionals.”
Women in the United States die at a higher rate from pregnancy related causes than any other high-income nations — between two to five times higher than countries like Germany or France, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
“Regardless of income or education level, Black women in America are three times as likely to die from pregnancy related complications,” said Vice President Harris. “And we know a primary reason for why that is so — systemic inequities. Differences in how people are treated based on who they are create significant disparities in health outcomes, disparities that are often a matter of life and death.”
Vice President Harris’ remarks were followed by a panel moderated by Angela Doyinsola Aina, co-founder of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, featuring Congresswoman Alma Adams and Congresswoman Ayanna Presley.
“I am thrilled to moderate today’s panel on passing the omnibus and year long postpartum Medicaid coverage,” Doyinsola said.
Since 2013, Doyinsola has been working with a growing alliance of Black led organizations toward the vision of “a world where Black mamas have the rights, respect and resources to thrive before, during and after pregnancy.”
She led a conversation with Adams and Presley that covered the importance of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a collection of bills which aim to provide increased funding for a variety of initiatives aimed to improve Black maternal health and better track data regarding the social determinants of health outcomes for Black mothers. As of this writing, only one of the twelve proposed bills has been passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Biden — Protecting Moms Who Served, a bill that targets veteran mothers.
“I’ve spoken with countless women who, who know either survivor or victim of the maternal health crisis, or who’ve survived it themselves,” said Congresswoman Adams. “It can happen to anyone.”
It also includes initiatives aimed to specifically improve maternal outcomes for incarcerated pregnant women and birthing mothers. “As Angela Davis reminds us, people think that social problems go to jail, but people do,” said Congresswoman Presley. “And all pregnant people deserve to be treated with dignity and to have access to care, including those who are incarcerated.”
Another key element in the Momnibus Act is the extension of postpartum care for Medicaid, which covers about one in five women of reproductive age, for one year. As of this writing, such extensions have been made in some states, but not at the federal level.
“We need this to be federal law,” said Congresswoman Presley. “We want to ensure that every Black mama has the opportunity to survive and to thrive.”
A second discussion panel moderated by Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, featured Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Underwood. Their conversation focused on some of the next steps needed to continue making progress on Black maternal health.
“I have faith in our Senate colleagues that there is a deal to be had and that our maternal health provisions will remain in that legislation,” said Congresswoman Underwood, alluding to the months-long gridlock in the Senate over Biden’s major policy agenda items such as Build Back Better.
One possible way for aspects of the Momnibus bill to be passed into law would be to bypass the requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, something that has allowed conservative Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema scuttle their own party’s agenda, through a process called reconciliation. The likelihood of this outcome is unclear, but the panel members were bullish on the subject.
“As Congresswoman Underwood said, we had pieces of this that have gotten done, and there were huge chunks of it included in the original Build Back Better effort and are still a part of the reconciliation,” said Senator Booker. That’s a fancy word for what we need to do here in the Senate and getting things done with just 50 votes because Republicans are blocking us. It is still part of the conversation and is still something we’re pushing for.”