NC lawmakers, advocates call for action to address crisis in Black maternal health

When she found out she was pregnant in 2016, Charity Watkins, a doctoral student at the time, did all the right things, meticulously following all recommended practices to ensure a successful and healthy pregnancy.

“I initiated prenatal care… my husband and I enrolled in birthing classes, I read books on what to expect, and took extra care to ensure I ate well and exercised throughout my pregnancy,” said Watkins, who is Black.

Watkins, a maternal health researcher at Duke University and an assistant professor at North Carolina Central University, actively participated in her obstetrical visits by asking questions, sharing her family’s medical history, and joining online communities to learn from other expecting parents.

Still, Watkins said she had a near death experience a day after giving birth, ending up in the intensive care unit with peripartum cardiomyopathy, or pregnancy-related heart failure. 

“It was only through X-rays … that I finally understood what was happening,” Watkins said. “But why did it take so long? Why weren’t my symptoms taken seriously? Why couldn’t my doctoral education protect me?” she asked. “My daughter almost lost her mom, and my husband almost lost his wife.”

The U.S. maternal mortality rate is among the worst in the world.

It’s worse for Black women.

Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women in the United States.

In North Carolina, maternal mortality rate more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, rising much faster than the national rate, according to a report released last year. Black women accounted for 43% of pregnancy-related deaths in the state from 2020 to 2022, despite comprising only 22% of North Carolina’s population.

Democratic state lawmakers are pushing a bill that aims to improve maternal health, specifically addressing disparities affecting Black mothers.

At a news conference Tuesday, where Watkins shared her story, legislators and advocates urged passage of Senate Bill 838, which would establish an implicit bias training program for health care providers in perinatal care and fund grant programs for perinatal education.

The bill, also known as the “MOMnibus,” would outline the rights of perinatal care patients and while allocating $5 million to implement the changes. The legislation would also have the state Department of Health and Human Resources collect data on the causes of maternal mortality and rates of maternal mortality to inform improvements in future implicit bias trainings.

Senator Natalie Murdock of Durham, a primary sponsor of the bill, urged Republican lawmakers currently crafting a budget in this short legislative session, to allocate funding for the bill. “We know our colleagues have bragged about a billion-dollar surplus so I think they can find $5 million,” she said.

“Black moms and Black babies deserve better,” Murdock said. “We must invest state dollars to improve these outcomes, and we must pass legislation that directly addresses these issues and racial disparities and inequalities in maternal health.” 

Black mothers aren’t the only group suffering from disproportionate health outcomes in North Carolina. While the state’s infant mortality rate saw a slight improvement from 2021 to 2022, Black babies in North Carolina remain more than twice as likely to die before their first birthdays compared to white babies, according to a CDC report.

“We know that … there are those who somehow believe that we take pain differently than we don’t need medication,” said Rep. Zack Hawkins (D-Durham). “But what it does boil down to is that in the medical space, we need to make sure that every doctor that wants to go into the space has the training to deal with all population.”

More than 80 percent of maternal deaths are preventable, according to data collected from Maternal Mortality Review Committees. MMRCs are multidisciplinary teams that convene at the state or local level to review deaths during or within 1 year of the end of pregnancy.

“We are experiencing a crisis here,” said Watkins.

“Improving the maternal health of Black women improves the health of all. We cannot afford to wait for action, legislation like the “Momnibus Act” is needed now; our lives depend on it.”

The House budget proposal that was released by Republican lawmakers late Monday does not include the requested funds.

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