We can’t talk about abortion rights and ignore maternal mortality

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When Jamila Perritt stood in front of a microphone and told the crowd waving signs outside the Supreme Court that she was an obstetrician-gynecologist, they cheered. And when she told them she was an abortionist in the town they were in, they clapped louder.

“Thank you!” someone shouted.

Perritt, who became president of Physicians for Reproductive Health in 2020, is just one of many who have spoken outside this hallowed building since a leaked draft notice let the nation know that the right to abortion is in danger. But as a black woman who grew up in DC and now sits on its maternal mortality review panel, Perritt took with her that day an intimate knowledge of the city where the Supreme Court will ultimately decide to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

“Although I wasn’t surprised,” Perritt told the draft notice crowd, “as an abortion care provider in the town where I grew up, in the place I love, I know this decision, should it go forward, will have a profound impact on the community I grew up in and the people I care about.

For Perritt, the issue is about people, not politics, and that’s what she most wanted to convey to protesters, she told me afterwards.

“We’re not talking about legal theory and political theater,” she said. “We are talking about real people who decide if, when and how to raise their families, who deserve to have the opportunity to do so without political interference. It’s freedom. It’s just. That’s what’s at stake here.

It’s not lost on Perritt that the country’s abortion rights will be decided in a city that has one of the most troubling maternal mortality rates for black people — and why that matters.

The city’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee was established in 2018 after Councilman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) drafted a bill to review what he and others have described as the city’s “maternal health crisis”. At the time, the nation had the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy country, and the district’s maternal mortality rate was more than double that of the nation. Both datasets also reflected large discrepancies between white and black deaths. In the District, of the maternal deaths recorded between 2014 and 2016, 75% were black women.

At that time, I wrote a column under the title, “Why Washington is one of the worst places to be black and pregnant.” In it, I shared the stories of black women who had devastating birth experiences and explained why racial disparities in maternal health could not simply be dismissed as a matter of economics or Education: Studies have shown that lifelong exposure to racism puts black women at a health disadvantage even before they become pregnant, and it can contribute to pregnancy complications and premature births.

Why Washington is one of the worst places to be black and pregnant

In another column, I wrote about a 15-year-old girl in DC who hid her pregnancy and then ended up in a Washington hospital with a severe case of strep throat. Doctors were unable to stop the infection. When the baby was born at 31 weeks, the teenager was brain dead and then taken off life support.

Pregnancy is not without risks, which is why we cannot talk about forcing people to stay pregnant without also talking about the country’s abysmal record of maternal mortality.

We can’t pretend that black people and other people of color who get pregnant — and then are forced to stay pregnant — aren’t more likely to die than white people who get pregnant.

We cannot pretend that we are only talking about a fetus when discussing access or lack of reproductive health care.

The stakes aren’t evenly distributed among people who get pregnant, and if Supreme Court justices need a reminder of that, they don’t have to look far. In a recent report, the district’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee shared these findings: “While Black childbirth constitutes approximately half of all births in DC, they account for 90% of all birth-related deaths. pregnancy and 93% of non-pregnancy related deaths.

The report went on to describe that number as existing in “striking contrast” with whites “who account for approximately 30% of births but experienced no pregnancy-related deaths and one non-pregnancy-related death between 2014 and 2018.” .

Consider these results for a moment. They tell us that in the city where Supreme Court justices spend their days considering what protections pregnant women deserve, nearly all of the pregnant women who die are black.

“When we look at inequitable outcomes for black women in particular, but also for many other communities, certainly Indigenous women, we find that those most likely to have morbidity and mortality complications during a pregnancy and immediately into the postpartum period are also the same communities that are more likely to need access to abortion care,” Perritt said. “This means that these laws restricting access to abortion will have a disproportionate impact on these communities. It’s the same people. It’s people of color. They are those who live on a low income. They are undocumented communities, LGBTQ people, young people.

Perritt also expressed concern about how DC could be left particularly vulnerable if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, which the draft opinion authored by Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. suggested was likely to happen. Because DC is not a state, it remains subject to congressional oversight.

Officials worry about legal abortion in DC if GOP takes over Congress

In recent days, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DD.C.) and DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, along with other lawmakers and community members, have expressed concern that a Republican-controlled Congress may attempt to restrict or ban abortion in the country. capital while renewing calls for DC to be granted statehood.

“I think people believe that we are a liberal city and that we can be a stronghold for our communities. But we don’t have a rule of origin,” Perritt said. “Without the ability to make decisions about our budget, without the ability to make decisions about the health and well-being of our communities, we will fall. Abortion access will drop in the District.

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