Last week, members of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) briefed members of Congress and nonprofit groups about the challenges facing black maternal health in the United States. BMMA is a maternal health advocacy committee overseen by Sister Song, a reproductive rights collective for women of color. Composed of human rights, maternal health, and reproductive justice experts, BMMA is leading efforts in policy development, research, and nonprofit work to protect the health of pregnant black women.

Despite the fact that global maternal mortality rates have fallen by over a third since 2000, death rates for pregnant women in the United States are on the rise. According to data from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. maternal mortality rate grew by more than fifty percent between 1990 and 2016. Maternal mortality rates are especially dismal for black women; black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women are.

Some medical experts have connected the overall rise in American maternal mortality to the rise in obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions among American women. Others have pointed to a possible correlation between decreased access to contraception and abortion services and increases in maternal mortality rates. For example, deaths from pregnancy-related complications doubled in Texas after the state legislature cut 66 percent of its funding for family planning services.

Higher maternal mortality rates for black women can be partially attributed to higher levels of poverty, which can impede healthcare access. But even after accounting for socioeconomic status and level of healthcare access, black women are more likely to experience pregnancy complications than white women. According to Elizabeth Dawes Gay of BMMA, this may indicate that racial discrimination plays a role in the black-white maternal health disparity.

During their congressional briefing, BMMA members asserted that the healthcare bill passed by the House and currently being revised in the Senate poses a major threat to black maternal health. The thirteen members of the all-white, all-male Senatorial committee working on healthcare have kept the bill development process under wraps, but feminist groups and healthcare advocates have expressed fears that the bill could allow health insurers to opt out of covering many women’s health services, including pre- and post-natal care and contraceptive coverage. The bill could also defund Planned Parenthood; this would prevent many young and low-income people from accessing affordable contraception, abortion, maternal care, and other health services.

More broadly, speakers at the briefing emphasized the need to pursue research on black maternal health, protect access to reproductive, maternal, and mental health services for black women, and give black mothers a platform to share their experiences.  In the words of one BMMA member, “We are showing up for America. And now it’s time for America to show up for black mamas.”

Media Sources: Black Mamas Matter Alliance website; Black Mamas Matter Alliance 6/14/17; New York Times 9/21/16, 8/19/16; Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation 9/21/16; Huffington Post 3/7/17; Washington Post 6/14/17

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