Congressional Roundtable: Maternal Health & Mortality

By Genavieve Smith
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Last week we went to a congressional hearing for the Committee on Energy and Commerce for HR 1897, HR 1551, HR 2902 and HR 2602, four bills that aim to address the maternal health and mortality crisis in America. During the hearing, expert witnesses testified and representatives from across the country gave their thoughts and asked questions. After hearing their thoughts, we had some of our own:

Callie

For me, the most impactful part of the hearing was the story shared by Mrs. Wanda Irving, a witness called before the committee. She talked about her daughter, a Black, highly-decorated medical professional with more than adequate health insurance. After delivering her baby, she experienced multiple warning symptoms, including swollen legs and high blood pressure. She made repeated visits to doctors and hospitals and just 21 days after giving birth, hours after her last medical visit, she passed away due to cardiac arrest.

Under the big umbrella of cultural disdain for women’s medical issues and women being told that they are “over-exaggerating,” there are many contributing factors to why the United States is the most dangerous of all upper middle-income countries for birthing a baby. Medicaid insurance coverage only extends two months postpartum, while many pregnancy-related deaths occur within one year postpartum. Similarly, while there is no data to find out how many women die by suicide or in opioid-related deaths, postpartum depression extends far past the two months that are covered by Medicaid.

Many factors, however, boil down to institutional biases. While education and insurance coverage play a role, a Black, college educated woman is more likely to die from pregnancy than a white woman with a high school degree. Some hospitals and health care facilities are trying to combat this with diversity inclusion officers and cultural sensitivity trainings. During the hearing, Mrs. Irving claimed that this is not enough–that healthcare professionals need to be held accountable for their actions.

During questioning, Mrs. Irving told another part of her story that stayed with me. She told the crowd that during the repeated hospital visits, she wanted to stick up for her daughter. She wanted to yell at the doctors to help save her daughter, but did not for two reasons: her daughter repeatedly expressed faith in the system—even though it eventually failed her—and Mrs. Irving was afraid of being dismissed under the stereotype of an “angry black woman.”

Everyone is inherently prejudiced, but we must actively check our racial biases. Acknowledging the ways in which you judge others is the first step in tackling your own biases and prejudices, and we all must act sooner rather than later–people’s lives are literally at stake.

Genavieve

Waiting for the hearing to start, I imagined it to be something much more intimidating and formal than it was—honestly, it kind of reminded me of high school, when I participated in mock legislatures like Youth in Government and Model UN. This got me thinking more generally about our government. These so-called representatives, placed on imaginary pedestals, were walking in and out of the hearing, only listening to snippets of what the witnesses had to say—that is, if they weren’t looking at their phones. This wasn’t a young crowd either: as you’d expect, the makeup of the committee was very old, white, and male. Obligatory disclaimer that old white men aren’t inherently bad, but considering what this bill was about, it’s frustrating to think about how many men—white men in particular—will ultimately get to decide if these bills move forward, impacting the health of so many women and their babies, primarily Black and Native women who are almost three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women I learned. 

Since I—someone who is not a representative responsible for voting on this topic—actually sat through and listened to what most of the people testifying had to say, I learned a lot about the specifics of maternal death and the barriers many women face because of insurance and lack of access to quality medical care. But the hearing really reinforced something else for me: following Mrs. Irving’s witness testimony about her daughter, I really started to think about our culture’s issue with trusting women, especially when that is compounded with other biases like racism. The United States is the most dangerous “developed” nation to have a baby because, for one, the medical community doesn’t trust women when they say they aren’t okay, especially Black and Native women. Mrs. Irving’s daughter was blatantly dismissed when she complained to her doctors about discomfort, and she died as a result. Of course many factors contribute to the rates of maternal mortality (including but not limited to: access to quality care, mental health, insurance, income level, etc.), but in a lot of cases I think life or death can boil down to implicit biases and whether doctors trust the women that they are being paid to care for.

Why is it so hard for people to believe women? To trust women? This isn’t only a problem relating to maternal health and mortality, or even just a problem within medicine. We all know there’s an issue with people believing women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused. Many of us have lived that. There’s also a long history of women’s mental health issues being dismissed or not taken seriously. The issue of maternal mortality not only reflects the role that racism plays in healthcare and society as a whole, but also the ways in which women aren’t believed or trusted even when it comes to our own bodies and feelings.

By Genavieve Smith

Genavieve is a student studying political science at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, advocating for survivors of sexual violence, and protecting reproductive rights for all.

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