Op-Ed: Maternal health disparities, the other health crisis

Maternal mortality rates are far higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries, especially for women of color. ‘New Jersey is particularly affected by this crisis’
Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, left, and Donna M. Christensen

While the coronavirus has dominated the news this past year, we are facing another health crisis that we must not overlook — the ongoing maternal health crisis affecting American women, particularly women of color. As women of color ourselves, elected officials — and one practicing physician — we are deeply disturbed by this trend and understand the urgency of the moment.

Mothers in the U.S. are dying at nearly triple the rate of other developed countries and Black women are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women. New Jersey is particularly affected by this crisis. The state is ranked 47th in the nation for maternal deaths and has one of the widest racial disparities for both maternal and infant mortality. In fact, a Black mother in New Jersey is seven times more likely than a white mother to die from maternity-related complications, and a Black baby is over three times more likely to die before his or her first birthday than a white baby.

What is behind these disturbing statistics? Experts point to implicit biases and racism within the medical system as contributing to the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among Black women. Studies have shown that physicians spend less time with Black patients, and when they are seen, their concerns tend to be dismissed or ignored. A recent study published in Reproductive Health found that one in six women, or roughly 17%, experiences mistreatment in childbirth, but this number is even higher for Black women (23%).

This bias is alarmingly prevalent in New Jersey. An analysis by the New Jersey Department of Health found dangerous levels of racial bias in the health care system associated with negative health outcomes. Pregnant individuals who reported experiencing racial bias during the year before pregnancy were 40% more likely to have a pre-term birth, 40% less likely to attend their postpartum checkups, 70% less likely to bring their infant to their well-baby visits, and 2.5 times more likely to experience postpartum depression symptoms. In the General Assembly, we have spearheaded addressing maternal health in New Jersey. Last year, I proudly sponsored A-828 which expanded Medicaid coverage for new mothers for a year after they give birth.

Beginning to respond

Fortunately, our leaders are beginning to respond to the crisis facing mothers and their children. First Lady Tammy Murphy, alongside The Nicholson Foundation and The Community Health Acceleration Partnership, launched Nurture NJ, a statewide campaign to reduce maternal and infant mortality. This first-of-its-kind strategy plans to make New Jersey a national leader in the fight for maternal health equity and safety and includes over 70 recommendations from stakeholders across the state. Alongside proposed budget provisions by the Murphy administration such as the “Cover All Kids” initiative, a newly established Reproductive Health Care Fund, funding for the expanded Medicaid coverage A-828 provided to new mothers, and increased funding for family planning services, the Nurture NJ Maternal, and Infant Health Strategic Plan is positioned to transform New Jersey into a leader in breaking down barriers to equitable maternity care.

New Jerseyans at the national level have also stepped forward to propose bold solutions to this long-standing crisis. Sen. Bob Menendez recently introduced  the Tech to Save Moms Act in the U.S. Senate, which would extend access to telehealth to combat maternal mortality. Focusing on the racial disparities in maternal health, Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 earlier this year, which is comprised of 12 bills that among other provisions makes critical investments in social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes, provides funding to community-based organizations working on improving maternal health outcomes and invests in community-based initiatives to reduce moms and babies’ exposure to climate change-related risks.

The recently-signed American Rescue Plan’s extension of postpartum coverage is another positive step toward helping solve this crisis, but, particularly in light of COVID-19, there is more work to be done. Congress and the Biden administration should follow New Jersey’s lead toward improving maternal health and eliminating racial disparities in birth outcomes by swiftly passing the Tech to Save Moms Act and the Black Maternal Health Omnibus Act and implementing other broad maternal health reforms. Failure to act puts the lives of mothers and infants at stake.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight