COVID-19 in Pa.: During This pandemic, we must address Pa.’s Black maternal health crisis | Opinion

April 14, 2020 6:30 am

By Morgan Cephas, Margo Davidson, Summer Lee, and Joanna McClinton

The Pennsylvania Legislature has passed more than 80 bills this year, but haven’t addressed one of the biggest concerns impacting the Black community – the racial inequalities in maternal health.

As Black women legislators representing Allegheny, Philadelphia, and Delaware counties in our state assembly, we know that Black women have always been the backbone of our social justice movement, our communities, households, and in our Legislature.

We are determined to not leave any member of our community behind.

In times of crisis, like the current coronavirus pandemic, the challenges our communities face on a daily basis are pushed into the light. At this time, very little is known about COVID-19’s impact on pregnant people, fetuses, childbirth, and infants.

But what we do know is that our healthcare system has never fully supported Black women. Racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes are a national health crisis.

Data released earlier this year by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the state of maternal health in this country is bleak across all 50 states. In 2018, the national maternal mortality rate, which refers to deaths related to pregnancy, showed an estimated 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, when 658 women died.

The statistics on Black maternal mortality are especially dire.

To understand why Pennsylvania moms die, the state needs to collect better data first

The data showed that of the 658 women who died of maternal causes in 2018, Black women fared the worst, dying at a rate of 2.5 times their white counterparts. In Pennsylvania, the state of Black maternal health lags closely behind our nation’s alarming rates.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, from 2012-2016, an increasing trend in pregnancy-related deaths occurred, with 11.4 deaths per 100,000 live births. For Black women, that rate is more than double, at 27.2 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births. With a public health pandemic looming over us, it’s imperative that our Legislature addresses our state’s maternal health crisis.

That’s why, during Black Maternal Health Week and always, we’re committed to addressing the racial disparities in pregnancy health outcomes in our home state and promoting the health and wellbeing of Black women and girls.

Historically, the dire state of Black maternal health in our state and across the country isn’t new. The causes of these health disparities run deep throughout our healthcare system.

Even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have acknowledged that racial bias is contributing to the disproportionate number of pregnancy-related deaths among women of color. Healthcare providers spend less time with Black patients, ignore our symptoms, dismiss and undertreat our pain.

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During this pandemic, expectant mothers are facing unbelievable barriers.

Governors in such states as New York had to issue an executive order to force all hospitals to allow a support person in the delivery room for expecting mothers. We know that a strong support system –  including significant others, doulas, family, and friends – is critical to positive birth outcomes. Our Legislature must put Black mothers first and we’re committed to promoting the maternal health, rights, and justice for all Black mothers.

Our colleague, Rep. Morgan Cephas, introduced a bold four-bill package that would lower the maternal mortality rates in Pennsylvania.

The legislation package would add severe maternal morbidity to the list of reportable events within the Pennsylvania Department of Health, extend Medicaid coverage for postpartum assistance and doula services for up to a year, require implicit bias training for healthcare providers, and other requirements. This legislation is one step forward to increasing access to quality care and addressing racial disparities within maternal health, but we know we can’t lead this fight alone.

Those who stand with us in the fight to protect Black mothers and promote policies that ensure Black families can live in safe and healthy communities need to make their voices heard and call on their elected officials to join us. You can find out who your state representative is by visiting here.

Pennsylvania state Reps. Morgan Cephas, Margo Davidson, Summer Lee, and Joanna McClinton, all Democrats, respectively represent the Philadelphia-based 192nd House District; the Delaware County-based 164th House District; the Allegheny County-based 34th House District, and the Philadelphia-based 191st District. They write from Harrisburg. 

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