The Maternal Mortality Crisis Is Personal. What Will It Take for Us To Act?

A U.S. crisis has been taking women and their babies for too long. It’s time to treat maternal mortality like the emergency that it is.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) outside the U.S. Capitol on June 13, 2018 (Toya Sarno Jordan / Getty Images)

When I was 18, I gave birth to my daughter in a respectable, accredited hospital. However, I left feeling traumatized and violated when a dozen or more male medical students took turns internally examining me. I was young, scared, vulnerable and treated as a specimen. My permission was never sought, perhaps, because of who they saw me as: a poor, expectant black woman.

I know I am not alone. Many Black and brown women feel mistreated at the doctor’s office and, too often, their concerns are downplayed and dismissed when they speak up for themselves. After giving birth to my daughter, let’s say I learned; I used a midwife for my subsequent two births so I had a professional by my side to answer any questions and support my emotional and physical wellbeing.

Since my last child was born 42 years ago, high maternal mortality continues as a moral stain on our nation. Although the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, it is not addressed as the crisis that it is—I suspect because it disproportionately is taking Black and Native mothers. Today, in 2022, Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers. And this statistic cuts across socioeconomic lines. Black women with college degrees still face worse maternal health outcomes than white women with only a high school diploma. What will it take for us to act?

The Mamas First Act would combat maternal mortality by expanding Medicaid coverage to include doulas and midwives, allowing all eligible birthing persons to gain access to these life-saving support systems.

I cannot stand the thought of another generation of mothers experiencing what I did, which is why I introduced the Mamas First Act. Right now, we are underutilizing the tools we already have to empower women during their childbirth: doulas and midwives. These perinatal workers are already providing prenatal, labor and postpartum support in our communities and are in the business of saving lives.

Research finds the use of doulas and midwives reduced C-sections and the incidence of premature babies. Doulas offer emotional and physical support through the birthing process and can serve as an advocate throughout the pregnancy. That is why I want to expand access for pregnancies where care is often inaccessible due to sociological misalignment.

Currently, around 2 million women give birth on Medicaid each year, and expanding access to supportive care could make a tremendous difference in saving the lives of mothers and their babies. The Mamas First Act would combat maternal mortality by expanding Medicaid coverage to include doulas and midwives, allowing all eligible birthing persons to gain access to these life-saving support systems.

In 2018, my hometown of Milwaukee, Wis., established a pilot program to provide funding for one hundred doulas to provide birthing support for expecting mothers. This transformative program for women living in the 53206 zip code—one of the poorest zip codes in the country with Black life outcomes as harsh as any that exist in America—proves the effectiveness of the bill. The legislation is a necessary step in our fight against decades of inequalities resulting in a lack of access to quality maternity care. This program is ongoing, but I anticipate this will make a positive impact in the lives of mothers and their babies.

My other bill, the Perinatal Workforce Act, which was included in the Black Maternal Health Caucus’s legislation package cleverly titled the “Momnibus,” would build a stronger, more culturally competent pipeline of perinatal workers that reflect America’s diverse mothers. Community-based groups are putting in the work, and my legislation recognizes their contributions by increasing the number of perinatal professionals and providing critical training to meet pregnant people’s unique cultural needs. 

There are 7 million women of child-bearing age who live in a community with limited access to maternal care, according to the March of Dimes—disproportionately impacting rural, urban, low-income women and mothers of color. My work confronts the systemic lack of access to maternal healthcare by bringing this care to pregnant people in their communities.   

The pandemic has spotlighted the disparities facing Black mothers, but this crisis has been taking women and their babies for too long. We need to treat our maternal mortality crisis like the emergency that it is.

Let’s start by advancing legislation that invests in our mothers and babies.

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U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District in 2004, making her the first African American elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin. She serves on the Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. She is also a member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and serves as Communications Task Force co-chair for the Democratic Women's Caucus. She was born in Racine, Wis., and raised in Milwaukee. She graduated from Marquette University. She started a community credit union as a VISTA volunteer and was honored as national “VISTA Volunteer of the Decade” from 1976-1986. Before being elected to Congress in 2004, she served in both the Wisconsin state Senate (1993-2004) and the Wisconsin state Assembly (1989-92). In 2000, Rep. Moore earned a Harvard University certificate for senior executives in state and local government. She has been honored by several local, state and national organizations for her work as a legislator.