Now more than ever, we know that racism threatens our collective health as much as the most infectious viruses do. We also know that racism impacts childbirth.
To this day, Black and Indigenous women still face rates of mortality, morbidity, and mistreatment much higher than their white counterparts in the United States. Data suggests that these disparities are largely related to systemic racism.
Nationally, maternal mortality has been rising across demographics. Women, regardless of race, are more likely to die in the United States from complications related to pregnancy and birth than in 54 other high-resource countries. Today, a woman is twice as likely to die from pregnancy-complications than her mother was a generation ago.
The pandemic has highlighted racial health disparities and exacerbates those disparities, as communities of color face even worse health outcomes in light of COVID-9.
While care during pregnancy and birth in the United States is subpar for everyone, it is worse for Black and Indigenous women. For our communities, maternal mortality is two to three times higher than that of white women.
But we aren’t just experiencing more death; we also experience more mistreatment. Black moms and babies experience racism throughout their perinatal care — not only dying at higher rates than their white counterparts, but one out of three of us deal with blatant disrespect throughout their care.
Our communities understand the threat of racism, especially during pregnancy and birth. Black, Indigenous and other people of color have always been leaders in identifying and addressing racial disparities.
The federal Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act led by U.S. Reps. Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, Vice President Kamala Harris, and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, is a comprehensive, multidimensional set of nine congressional bills directed at tackling the range of interrelated issues that contribute to this problem. We should support those national efforts.
Colorado’s communities of color are also rising to meet this challenge. State Sen. Janet Buckner championed the creation of the Maternal Mortality Review Committee in 2019. And our state is now poised to continue that work with an even more ambitious agenda that honors the leadership and vision of our forebears, like Dr. Justina Ford, who was a visionary, community-based, multi-disciplinary health innovator. She provided care to the most marginalized as Colorado’s first Black, woman physician.
Here in the Colorado General Assembly, we will be introducing comprehensive legislation this session that aims to improve perinatal care in Colorado so that it works better for all of us.
For example, midwives are shown to provide optimal care, and yet only 14% of births in Colorado are attended by midwives. Colorado needs to expand and integrate midwifery, address gaps between evidence and implementation, gather better data and increase transparency and accountability.
In addition, we can improve outcomes by addressing maternity care with a human rights approach. Facilities were too quick to compromise human rights during the pandemic when people had to birth without their support team, or when they were forced to have their newborns removed from their arms.
This inattention to the health-value of defending human rights is reflected in the mistreatment of incarcerated people, especially during childbirth. Although Colorado passed legislation years ago to prohibit the shackling of incarcerated pregnant people, inhumane conditions remain and need to be addressed.
The maternal health system is a good place to start to ensure that we bring the next generation into the world under the best possible conditions. Our collective health and wellbeing depend on our commitment to human rights and the dismantling of white supremacy.
In the 2021 legislative session, we aim to close racial inequities in care and advocate for those who experience the worst disparities at the very beginning of life by introducing a birth equity bill package.
Leslie Herod of Denver has represented state House District 8 since 2017 and serves on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.
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