by Savannah Ackerman
The US House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on May 6, 2021, titled “Birthing While Black: Examining America’s Black Maternal Health Crisis.” As part of the hearing Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO) spoke of her own experience with maternal healthcare as a Black woman.
She recounted how she was told to share her concerns with her doctor, but was dismissed when she reported that she was having severe pain. That pain was a warning sign of impending labor. One week after the conversation with her doctor, Bush delivered her son at 23 weeks gestation instead of the typical 40. She described what her baby looked like at such an early stage, “His ears were still in his head. His eyes were still fused shut… You could see his lungs. He could fit within the palm of my hand. We were told he had a 0% chance at life.” After he was born, her doctor left him for dead. A different doctor had to intervene and resuscitate him. Her son is now 21 years old.
She then shared the experience of dismissal and discrimination that she faced when she went into pre-term labor again, this time with her daughter. She recounts how the doctor told her to just go home and (spontaneously) abort her child through miscarriage. The doctor said that she could just have another baby “because that is what you people do.” The staff only called Bush’s own doctor when her sister threw a chair down the hall to get their attention. Her doctor was able to do a procedure that allowed her to carry and give birth to her baby. Her daughter is now 20 years old.
If she had listened to her doctor and just aborted her baby to try again at a later date that child would not be her daughter, which speaks to the individuality of people in the womb. It’s not possible to “try again later” to conceive another baby and have the resulting human being somehow “replace” the life that was lost. Her daughter’s unique life was not respected by the doctor but was important enough for her mother to fight for her.
Congresswoman Bush shared her testimony to show that race-based healthcare disparities exist. While the testimony’s intended purpose was not to demonstrate that children in the womb are unrepeatable and that they and their mothers deserve to be cared for, it does just that and it does so powerfully. She brought light to the lives she had made in her womb and witnessed that they mattered and still do. These children, whose rights the doctors decided did not exist, were allowed to grow up because their mother fought for them. To build a culture that respects life and the rights of all human beings, Black voices, such as Congresswoman Bush’s, must be heard. The first-hand reality of the racial disparities in healthcare she experienced is startling, but far from unusual.
In reviewing stillbirth rates from 2015-2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Black mothers were more than twice as likely to experience a stillbirth than their white and Hispanic counterparts. Health problems that occurred during pregnancy or underlying health issues were cited as the cause of a stillbirth three times more often among Black women than white women.
Black mothers’ health is also more at risk. Pregnancy-related deaths are overall two to three times more likely to occur for Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women. For women above 30, this rate becomes four to five times higher for these groups as compared to white women. Racial disparities existed regardless of the women’s education level or if the state where the women lived had a low pregnancy-related mortality ratio. The CDC called these findings a “complex national problem.”
At its heart, this “complex national problem” is an urgent call to action in the pro-life movement to protect mothers and children from race-based disparities and bias. As long as Black women are not being given proper care and the lives of Black individuals are not held in esteem, the culture will never be one that supports and praises life.
Sadly, when Congresswoman Bush posted her testimony on Twitter it was hijacked by commenters who missed the point entirely. Perhaps surprisingly, the pro-life message was not the point highlighted and neither was the disparity in maternal healthcare and the call to action to defend Black mothers and Black children. Even Bush’s own story was not the focus. Rather, comment after comment was about how she had used the term “birthing people” in her tweet and how that made them angry.
People said she erased women by not using the word “mothers.” If they had actually listened to her brief testimony, which was only three minutes long, then they would have heard her say, “I am committed to doing the absolute most to protect Black mothers, to protect Black babies, to protect Black birthing people, and to save lives.” By focusing on this single phrase and ignoring the rest of her testimony, the strong message about protecting mothers and children was obscured. The call to action was ignored and an opportunity for common ground was lost.
A common response from self-identified pro-choice commenters was, “and this is from someone who is supposedly ‘pro-life.’”
That statement should stop us in our tracks. When we let ideologies and bias that have nothing to do with the pro-life message cloud and detract from the call to non-violence, we are being our own worst enemy. We are losing credibility. We are missing an opportunity to engage others in the pro-life movement who are moved by this story of callous disregard for vulnerable humans, born and preborn alike. We are doing exactly what Congresswoman Bush is begging those who heard her testimony not to do: to ignore the call to hear and believe Black voices since for so long no one has. In addition, ignoring the intended message and making this about one's ideology in regards to gender politics instead of people tells those who do get pregnant but do not identify as female that they do not matter. Alienating pregnant people does nothing to advance the pro-life cause, and it undermines the ultimate goal: to end violence against human beings.
If the violence of abortion is going to end, healthcare disparities need to be ended. We need to advocate for the rights of all human beings regardless of race or gender identity.