“We cannot be a society that is losing mothers”
At the White House's first Maternal Health Day of Action, Kamala Harris outlined a plan to reduce maternal mortality. Plus: The button-down I’m eyeing for my visit to the Rockefeller Christmas Tree.
There’s a chance Russia could escalate its aggression towards Ukraine, which goes against the interests of the United States since we provide foreign and military aid to Ukraine. So President Joe Biden held a call this morning with Russian President Vladimir Putin to let him know that the US would respond with sanctions to weaken Russia’s economy if he continued Moscow’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border. And later today, the president convened a follow-up to yesterday’s call with European leaders to coordinate a united front in case Putin goes buck wild.
But while the commander in chief was focused on stemming European chaos, Vice President Kamala Harris was busy speaking about how she and the president plan to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity during the first-ever White House Maternal Day of Action. During the event, the vice president issued a nationwide call to action to federal agencies, businesses and non-profits to join together to solve this unnecessary crisis.
“This challenge is urgent. And it is important. And it will take all of us,” Harris said. “We cannot be a society that is losing mothers.”
Harris also hosted a one-on-one discussion about maternal health with five-time US Olympian Allyson Felix, one of my favorite athletes ever and the most decorated Olympic track and field athlete of all time. In a 2019 op-ed in The New York Times, Felix shared her pregnancy story and how her contract renewal negotiations with Nike fell apart after the sports brand offered Felix 70 percent less than she made prior to starting a family. She asked the company to contractually guarantee that she wouldn’t be punished if she underperformed in the months surrounding childbirth. After Nike declined, Felix signed with Gap-owned Athleta and started her own shoe brand.
Felix said at the time that she felt pressure to return to her superstar status immediately after the birth of her daughter in November 2018, despite the emergency C-section she underwent due to severe pre-eclampsia that could have killed her and her baby. “I think about my own experience,” Felix said to the vice president today. “And going to the doctor and not being told that I was at risk, not having that preparation or even having my mind go to a place where this is something that I should be thinking about and how can I prepare and plan for if things don't go exactly right.”
America’s maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the developed world. In 2018, 17.4 pregnant people died per 100,000 live births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This figure spiked to 20.1 deaths per 100,000 live births the following year, according to a different CDC data set. In 2019, more women were identified as having died of maternal causes in the US than in 2018.
This crisis is especially harmful to Black women and Native American women — regardless of their income or education levels — and women in rural communities. Black women are more than three times as likely to die from from pregnancy-related complications as white women. Native American women are twice as likely. Meanwhile, pregnant women who live in rural communities die before, during or following birth at a clip that’s 60 percent higher than women who live in urban communities. And for the tens of thousands of pregnant people who live through childbirth, they’ll do so with life-altering health challenges, such as severe heart issues, hemorrhages, seizures and blood infections.
“At this point, I think we’ve reached peak awareness amongst those who are most like to be affected by the maternal mortality crisis,” Tomi Akitunde, founder and editor-in-chief of mater mea, a website and community for Black moms, said in an email to Supercreator News. “Many Black women already know the statistics and the repetition from the crisis has become another stark reminder of this country and society’s stance on Black lives and whether or not they matter.” Akitunde said that until now campaigns like the Maternal Day of Action focus on “passive awareness” and put the onus on Black birthing people to do all they can to prevent their own deaths. “What would it look like to live in a society where the finger was pointed back at the people and practices who are responsible for this loss of life?“
And as lawmakers and the courts debate the politics of reproductive rights in America, the science is clear: It’s safer to have an abortion than to give birth to a child. “It’s important to focus on maternal mortality when we’re talking about abortion access because access to safe and legal abortion decreases maternal mortality,” Dr. Sarah Prager, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said during a virtual event I attended last month. Prager cited data showing the mortality from abortion is 0.7 per 100,000, compared to the CDC figures I reported earlier. “One of the procedures mentioned in the prior slide, the risk of dying from a tonsillectomy was three to six per 100,000. So abortion is actually significantly safer than carrying a child to term and many other minor procedures.”
Harris took sweeping liberties during today’s events to promote the Build Back Better Act that passed the House before Thanksgiving and is currently toiling in the Senate as a solution to some of these maternal health issues. The legislation would invest over $3 billion in new maternal health funding and require all states to provide continuous Medicaid coverage for 12 months postpartum instead of the insufficient 60-day threshold. It would also allow states to establish maternal health homes to better coordinate health care for individuals before, during and following birth.
In addition to signing Build Back Better into law if it passes, the administration also committed to lobbying states to expand postpartum coverage and report on the impact of postpartum coverage. The White House will also create a new “ birthing-friendly” designation of the quality of maternal health services for our nation’s hospitals. (The designation is intended to be awarded to those hospitals that participate in a collaborative program aimed at improving maternal outcomes and implementing patient safety practices.)
I couldn’t help but notice the empathy and expertise that the vice president demonstrated today, especially since it’s often missing during these discussions in a political landscape dominated by straight white men. After all, Harris has had a rough news cycle the past few weeks as she attempts to manage a brutal legislative portfolio that includes intractable issues like immigration and voting rights while governing under the microscope of a White House press corps that treats politics as sport and is often slow to check their blind spots for racism and sexism. And though she has made her fair share of unforced errors as the second-highest officer in the executive branch, today’s focus on expanding access to maternal care was a welcome sight. “Mothers are the backbone of our economy, and their children are the future of our economy,” she said. “We know that when women do not get the healthcare they need, families suffer, communities suffer and our nation suffers.” I agree, Madam Vice President.
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