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Sen. Tammy Duckworth: How We Can End the Maternal Death Epidemic

September 19, 2018, 5:47 PM UTC

My baby girl Maile made history the moment she was born, before she had even opened her eyes.

When I gave birth to Maile this past April, I became the first U.S senator to have a child while serving in office. And when I carried her, onesie and all, into the chamber for a vote 10 days later, she became the first newborn ever allowed onto the Senate floor.

But through my nine months of pregnancy—and my time in labor—I wasn’t thinking about making history. I was thinking about staying healthy.

Because I’ve seen the stats. I’ve read the horror stories. And I know that here in the U.S., expectant and new moms are still dying at truly horrifying rates.

Case in point: According to a recent NPR-ProPublica investigation, we’re the only developed nation in the world where the rate of women dying of pregnancy-related complications is still rising, with more women dying from these causes here at home than in any comparably developed country.

Tell me that’s not heartbreaking. Then tell me it’s not infuriating that over 60% of these deaths were preventable.

We’re the wealthiest nation on the planet, for goodness’ sake. We shouldn’t be the most fatal for new moms in the developed world too.

The stats are even worse for women of color and those living in poorer and more rural areas.

For proof, look no further than our nation’s capital. Not only is Washington, D.C.’s maternal mortality rate two times higher than the country’s average, but 75% of the expectant and new mothers who died between 2014 and 2016 in D.C. were black.

Seventy-five percent. That’s devastating and shameful—as is the fact that black women nationwide are more than three times as likely to die in childbirth than white women are. And that 10 million women live in counties without even a single ob-gyn, forcing moms-to-be to drive hours and hours to give birth somewhere with adequate maternal care facilities.

In that last example, it’s easy to see how tragedies could arise and lives could be lost. In other circumstances, the causes may be more subtle—but the deaths are just as preventable.

Even at world-class hospitals with cutting-edge technology, warning signs of women’s deteriorating health can be overlooked by medical staff, who tend to be primarily concerned with monitoring the baby’s well-being.

And by the time these warning signs are recognized, it’s often too late. The mother-to-be has already begun to hemorrhage or her blood pressure has spiked, and the doctors don’t have the tools on hand to save her in time.

In 2018, mothers’ lives shouldn’t be allowed to slip through the cracks like that.

This isn’t some catch-22. There are real (and easy-to-implement) solutions that could help end this crisis.

A team of researchers in California found that just implementing training drills and checklists, and putting together crash carts tailored to common complications, could help stop this epidemic, and the state’s maternal death rate dropped 55% between 2006 and 2013.

Think about that in human terms. Think about how many daughters will grow up with their mothers by their sides thanks in part to a few simple checklists. Think about how many little boys will get to have their moms teach them to tie their shoes thanks to some crash carts.

Congress can and should allocate resources so programs like this can expand beyond California, saving women’s lives in every mile of this country. We should pass legislation like the Maternal Health Accountability Act, which would give states the resources they need to investigate and then minimize pregnancy-related deaths. We should also support policies like the Maternal CARE Act, which would give hospitals grants to try to end racial bias in maternity care.

And we should find ways to expand good, affordable health care to more moms and moms-to-be, instead of pushing bills like last year’s Trumpcare, which would’ve allowed insurers to use pregnancy as a cruel excuse to strip women of their coverage.

But it’s not just about what we can do for women after they’re pregnant. We also need to defend family-planning organizations like Planned Parenthood against the GOP’s relentless, senseless attacks, ensuring that low-income women are able to get the basic lifesaving health care that they desperately need.

We need to invest more fully in struggling communities—helping improve their schools, grow their economies, and bring down the cost of public housing—because pregnancies don’t just happen in a vacuum.

And finally, we need to lift up more women. Full stop. Because even today, with women making up 51% of the population, we only make up about 20% of Congress—and I’m sure that if we had anything even close to gender parity on the Hill, it wouldn’t have taken until 2018 for a senator to give birth while serving in office.

And in that alternative Congress with gender parity, I’d bet anything that we’d already be working tirelessly to pass legislation that could save these moms’ lives. Because our chamber would be full of fellow women—fellow new moms—who also would’ve felt the pangs and the fear of childbirth, the joys and the terrors of motherhood.

Maybe, just maybe, if we’d already achieved true parity in Congress, the hundreds of expectant or new moms who are estimated to have died in this country since I gave birth to Maile would still be here today, witnessing their babies’ first yawns or smiles.

So for their sakes—and for my two daughters’, who might also want to have their own children someday—I’m going to keep working, keep fighting, to make damn sure that no other woman dies a preventable death on what should be the most special day of their lives.

Tammy Duckworth is the junior U.S. senator from Illinois.