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Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. have risen steadily. Sen. Kamala Harris has a plan to change that

Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. have risen steadily. Sen. Kamala Harris has a plan to change that
Sen. Kamala Harris of California. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Kamala Harris says she wants to force the medical community to address an uncomfortable reality: Black women in the United States are three to four times more likely than white women to die immediately before or after childbirth.

The California Democrat plans to introduce a bill Wednesday to provide $30 million in annual grants to train against racial bias and to incentivize healthcare professionals to address the disparity in maternal health outcomes.

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Harris, a possible 2020 presidential contender, has made a key policy issue out of what she calls “implicit bias,” or race-based stereotypes, that affect how people act or think, as well as black maternal mortality.

As California’s attorney general, she implemented training to respond to biases in law enforcement. Now she’s applying that to black maternal mortality, an issue that gained attention this year in part because of several media reports and public remarks from celebrities such as Serena Williams, who suffered severe complications after the birth of her daughter.

Women who are becoming mothers shouldn’t have to deal with avoidable risks to themselves or their baby, said Harris, who is the only black woman serving in the U.S. Senate.

“A large part of it is the biases that exist in the medical health professions that lead to these women not being taken seriously,” she said. “Frankly, there are a lot of biases that exist .… It’s a truth, uncomfortable as it may be.”

Maternal mortality rates in the United States — unlike most other developed countries — have risen steadily since federal officials began tracking the figures in 1987. In 2014, the last year of federal statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 18 deaths per 100,000 live births among women of all races. That is up from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987. Health experts cannot concretely explain the national increase.

The problem is even more acute for black women, who are three to four times more likely to suffer fatal complications than white women. Between 2011 and 2014, the ratio among white women was 12.4 deaths per 100,000 live births and 40 deaths for black women, according to the CDC.

The health threats include cardiovascular disease, infection and hemorrhage.

“I think it is phenomenal that Sen. Harris is stepping forward to lead on this issue for black women,” said Elizabeth Dawes Gay, a co-director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a group that has been advocating to improve health outcomes. “The fact that she is the only black female senator speaks to a larger problem we have in American society that affects all aspects of our lives. The dearth of black women leaders in the Senate is connected to the problem of poor maternal health outcomes.”

Harris’ bill probably faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Congress, where few pieces of major legislation typically move in an election year. But Harris said Tuesday that she wants to do more on the subject.

The bill would create two new grant programs: $5 million for bias training at medical schools and health programs, with a priority on obstetrics and gynecology programs; and $25 million for states to incentivize healthcare providers to reduce mortality rates and racial disparities. It would also instruct the National Academy of Medicine to determine how to incorporate bias recognition into medical schools.

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