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In another prong of what's clearly a bid to win Wonkette's coveted Legislative Badass of the Year award, Rep. Lauren Underwood, the freshman Democratic congresswoman from Illinois, has taken a major step toward addressing what might be America's most horrifying public health crisis. Deaths from pregnancy complications for black women occur at four times the rate among white mothers, which is why, in April, Underwood launched a new congressional group, the Black Maternal Health Caucus, to focus attention and legislative action on the problem. Her co-chair in the caucus is Rep. Alma Adams (D-North Carolina); the two also introduced a resolution to declare a second annual Black Maternal Health Week.

The issue is a personal one for Underwood. In 2017, she lost a close friend, Dr. Shalon Irving, who died just three weeks after giving birth, at the age of 36. Irving was an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control whose death was featured in a major ProPublica/NPR report. She had studied the Third-World level of healthcare faced by many women right here in America; her death proved that the culprits you might assume -- poverty and lack of access to care -- didn't matter. It could happen to the woman whose profession it was to study it. It's damned unhealthy just to exist as a black woman in the Greatest Nation On Earth.


Underwood told Elle magazine,

"I'm the youngest black woman to ever serve in Congress and I'm the only black woman of reproductive age in the Congress, so I'm really happy to be able to be a leading voice on this important issue," she says. "[It's heartbreaking] and this can happen to anybody, because the factors that would protect other women, like being highly educated, a high income, living in a safe neighborhood, going to prenatal appointments, having health insurance, all of these different things do not protect black women the same way they do other groups."

Big surprise: As ProPublica and NPR detailed throughout their investigative series last year, a lot of the deaths -- and the pregnancy-related health problems black women face -- boil down to systemic bias by doctors when it comes to taking black women's concerns seriously. Plus the whole thing about racism being bad for people's health.

Underwood and Adams have already signed up more than 50 members for the caucus, which includes plenty of Democrats, and even several Republicans, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Washington), who introduced the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act. Underwood says it's past time to bring the kind of sustained focus to black maternal health that other health issues have gotten, noting that other illnesses and health problems have their own NIH institutes, like the National Cancer Institute and the National Child Development Institute.

"We don't have that for this kind of a challenge," she says. "We have to be strategic and work with our partners, community groups, and clinicians to elevate programs that we know work. Then we have to see if there's models that we can develop to demonstrate projects, write and issue a bill, and give it a small pot of money. [We want to] see what works.

The statistics are grim. Maternal mortality in the USA has actually increased instead of declined, and we have the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. That's mostly due to higher deaths from complications among African-American women, according to Dr. Neel Shah, an OB-GYN at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School:

"These deaths," Shah says, "are the canary in the coal mine of an even larger problem. For every death, there are thousands of black women who experience avoidable suffering in the form of illness, social isolation, and economic disempowerment in the period surrounding a birth" [...]

"As an obstetrician myself, it is uncomfortable to say this but there is clear evidence that when black women express medical concerns, particularly regarding pain, the health care system is slower to respond than it should be," Shah says. "This is the common thread in many of the prominent stories in the news of a black woman's experiences."

The danger of "giving birth while black" was featured just last week on the new WNYC podcast "The Stakes"; we'll warn you, it's a somewhat harrowing but absolutely vital listen.

Underwood isn't exactly new to the topic, either; Elle notes she argued in her undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Michigan that the racial disparity in maternal mortality could in part be addressed by expanding the availability of midwives and paying them more.

"I was deeply disturbed by the maternal mortality disparity that African American women had and here we are many years later and it still exists," she says. "It's a problem for black women in America."

The new caucus will also partner with Black Mamas Matter Alliance, whose mission is to "advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice." The group has a whole list of items they'd like Congress to address, please, and has called for black leaders to be included when legislation affecting black women's health is drafted.

Ahem. States attempting to restrict abortion while not doing anything about high infant and maternal mortality rates: You need to be listening, don't you think?

Underwood is hopeful that the new caucus will mark a turning point in this crisis, and is glad to have Jaime Herrera Beutler's support, calling her bill "a great first step," since it will help fund state programs to study and reduce maternal deaths.

"There's a variety of [similar] bills that have been proposed," she says. "[We] want to see those passed. We want them to get hearings. We want appropriation, dedicated dollars to study this issue."

Gee, it's almost as if congressional power could be used for good instead of evil. We'd love to see the idea catch on.

[Elle / ProPublica / Lauren Underwood on Twitter / The Stakes / Black Mamas Matter Alliance]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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