Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy Defends Statements About State’s Black Maternal Health

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is under fire for comments he made about the state of black maternal health in an interview with Politico last week.

Cassidy said that while blacks make up a third of the state’s population and experience higher rates of pregnancy-related deaths, “if you correct our population by race, we’re not as outliers as it would not seem otherwise”.

“Now I say that not to downplay the problem, but to focus it on where it would be. For some reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality,” Cassidy told Politico for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health’s Public Health on the Brink series.

Cassidy also attributed the disproportionate rates to how the state defines pregnancy-related deaths.

“Sometimes maternal mortality includes up to a year after birth and would include someone killed by their boyfriend,” Cassidy said. “In my mind, it’s best to limit your definition to what is perinatal, if you will — the time just before and in the period after childbirth.”

Louisiana has one of the highest black maternal mortality rates in the country. A state health department report shows that four black mothers die for every white mother and two black babies die for every white baby. In the United States, black mothers are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers.

Black reproductive justice advocates denounce Cassidy’s latest comments.

Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a national reproductive health advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said Cassidy’s comments reveal that Louisiana is not taking appropriate action to resolve the issue.

“Maybe that’s why the numbers are so low,” Howell told NBC News. “Because he, like other elected officials in his state, doesn’t really care about addressing the factors that cause black maternal mortality.”

Cassidy, a gastroenterologist, later wrote on Twitter that his quotes were taken out of context. Cassidy added that individuals are using her statements to “create a malicious and false narrative,” adding that the discussion focused on her work on racial bias in health care, including the inequities faced by black mothers. .

Cassidy is a co-sponsor of the Maternal Health Quality Improvement Act, a 2021 bill that would direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to allocate funds to support maternal health. The bill was included in an omnibus spending bill, which passed in March.

Yet Howell insisted that Cassidy’s remarks underscore a much larger problem – the medical racism faced by black communities in all areas of the country’s healthcare system.

Louisiana, in particular, tends to rank low when it comes to overall population health. Last year, the United Health Foundation Louisiana ranked Louisiana last of 50 states in overall health, citing high prevalence of smoking, alcohol, obesity and high percentage of low birth weight babies compared to average national.

“If you have a senator who is willing to fire a third of his constituents, what happens when they walk into a hospital for treatment? Howell said. “Not just for maternal issues, but for any type of issue, they’re going to be fired.”

Why are black maternal mortality rates high?

Black pregnant women continue to face a disproportionate number of pregnancy-related deaths, with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating a 26% increase in the maternal mortality rate for black women since the start of the pandemic.

While researchers don’t have an explanation for the disparities, research suggests it’s a culmination of institutional racism and other health factors, such as increased risk of obesity and hypertension in black women. Howell also added that stress and lack of access to quality prenatal care further exacerbate this problem.

“It really comes down to how public health officials relate to black women giving birth,” Howell said. “Black maternal mortality statistics are high across the board, regardless of your level of education, regardless of your level of insurance.”

In 2018, tennis star Serena Williams spoke in an interview with Vogue magazine about serious health complications after giving birth because doctors neglected to listen to her existing medical conditions.

“When you have someone like Serena Williams who is having trouble giving birth and isn’t being treated properly by nurses and doctors when she complains that she’s not feeling well, then you’re looking at someone’s doctor. one who is poor in Louisiana and has the same kind of problem – they are probably treated even worse,” Howell said.

Cassidy is also facing backlash on social media. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., slammed the official Friday for his comments.

Cassidy, she said, “doesn’t seem to care that black women are disproportionately dying in her condition,” Moore tweeted. “Her indifference is sickening to read, but it helps explain why America continues to struggle with a maternal health crisis.”

Angela D. Aina, co-founder and executive director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a nonprofit group promoting black maternal health rights, also denounced Cassidy’s remarks.

“The Black Mamas Matter Alliance finds Senator Cassidy’s statement to be woefully misinformed and in direct opposition to the actual data that exists on maternal health in the United States,” Aina said in an email to NBC News. “We call on all policy makers and health care providers to examine the data and, above all, to listen to the many black women practitioners, scholars, researchers and activists who have not only the expertise and background, but also the lived experience. , to learn what is needed to improve maternal health outcomes for all Black mothers and birth attendants.

Howell said Cassidy’s comments reinforce the importance of black reproductive organizations in stepping up to address this crisis facing the community.

“If we want to get better results, we have to fix it ourselves,” Howell said. “That’s always been true with black women – we have to be our own best advocates, and that’s what happens.”

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