Angela Doyinsola Aina is still “beaming” from the acknowledgement.
Last week, President Biden issued the first White House proclamation recognizing Black Maternal Health Week. Aina is the co-founder and executive director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance, which celebrated its fourth annual BMHW from April 11 to 17.
“I’m really happy that, finally, those that are in power are embracing what those of us who have been advocating for reproductive justice, for birth justice, for human rights, have been saying for hundreds of years,” Aina said during a virtual BMHW event on Wednesday.
BMHW aims to raise awareness about Black maternal health and “amplify community-driven policy, research, and care solutions.” Although BMHW focuses on the need to eliminate maternal mortality, a worsening crisis that disproportionately affects Black and Native American women, their work goes beyond birthing.
“Black mamas have to think about their contraceptive needs,” said Joia Crear-Perry, an OB/GYN and the founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “They have to think about their mental well-being. We also get things like endometrial cancer. We have a full range of experiences.”
BMHW events also dug into the way racism, gender oppression and classism shows up throughout Black reproductive experiences, from slavery to present day, and how issues such as mass incarceration, police violence and lack of paid family leave impact their health.
“Culture, policies have been trying to break us, but we are not broken,” Crear-Perry said, adding that Black people “deserve joy and justice.”
Throughout the week, a range of people — including parents, physicians, researchers, midwives, birth workers and public officials — gathered virtually to celebrate BMHW. Here are some moments you may have missed.
Illinois became the first state to fully extend Medicaid from 60 days to one year postpartum
On April 12, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced the approval of Illinois’s request to extend Medicaid from 60 days to 12 months postpartum. Although the extension is set to expire in 2025, Becerra recognized that the move is a “big deal.”
“The last thing that any of our new mothers need is to worry that they won’t have the security of health insurance,” Becerra said. He encouraged other states to “follow Illinois’s lead.” A provision in the American Rescue Plan will make it easier for willing states to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for five years. Some advocates are tempering their excitement: They say the extension should be mandatory, not optional, for states.
Becerra also announced $12 million in funding for rural maternal health. In rural areas across the country, the number of maternity units continues to decline, leaving people with fewer care options.
HHS later approved similar state requests to extend coverage in Georgia — from 60 days to six months postpartum — and Missouri. In Missouri, after the traditional 60-day Medicaid postpartum period ends, only those diagnosed with substance use disorder will receive partial coverage for an additional 10 months. Their coverage will be limited to behavioral health benefits.
Vice President Harris hosted a White House roundtable discussion on Black maternal health
Donna Trim-Stewart vowed not to be silent when her daughter, Arika Trim, died one week after giving birth.
“This cannot be allowed to continue to happen,” Trim-Stewart told Harris and Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, during a White House roundtable discussion on April 13. Trim-Stewart recounted how her daughter brought a notebook full of questions to her doctor’s appointments while pregnant and asked doctors to figure out why she kept passing out in the days following an emergency Caesarean section.
“No one listened,” Trim-Stewart said. “Her voice wasn’t heard.”
Heather Wilson and Erica McAfee, who hosts a podcast called “Sisters in Loss,” shared their own stories with Harris. As a bereavement doula, Wilson supports families who experience pregnancy and infant loss through her nonprofit, Kennedy’s Angel Gowns.
“We help up to 10 families a week bury their children,” Wilson said. “That number, it’s unreal, and that’s just my small organization.”
During the roundtable, participants offered solutions-based ideas. Harris highlighted the need for implicit bias training among health-care professionals, noting that Biden’s budget includes funding for the Maternal CARE Act. As a senator in 2019, Harris introduced the legislation with Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.). It did not pass.
Harris also recognized the recent police killing of Daunte Wright, whose son is still a toddler.
“He should be alive today,” Harris said. “Our nation needs justice and healing, and law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability. At the same time, we know that folks will keep dying if we don’t fully address racial injustice and inequities in our country, from implicit bias to broken systems.”
Advocates continue to push for an Office of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Wellbeing
Before the 2020 presidential election, the National Birth Equity Collaborative gathered stakeholders to figure out what they wanted to see from the next administration. The birth equity agenda included a call for the White House to create an Office of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Wellbeing.
In February and March, lawmakers in the House and Senate started vocalizing their support: They sent letters to Biden and Harris requesting that the White House establish an office within the Domestic Policy Council to “elevate issues of reproductive justice” through a “human rights, gender and racial equity lens” across all levels of federal government.
“We’re not just asking,” said Crear-Perry during a BMHW event, noting how the work of Black women propelled Biden and others into office. “We’re demanding a White House Office of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Wellbeing, and we want y’all to help demand with us.”
Lawmakers expressed hope that the Black Maternal Health Momnibus will progress in the Senate
The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020 failed to pass amid gridlock in Congress. But now, with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) is optimistic about the 2021 version of the Momnibus, which she reintroduced with Adams and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in February.
“There is a possibility that bills start to move in the Senate before they do in the House,” Underwood said on April 14 during a conversation about the Momnibus, which consists of 12 bills and aims to end preventable maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity. “That is a bit of a different dynamic than we’re used to.”
Adams also noted the importance of “working on change” at the state and local level. The congresswoman represents North Carolina, which hasn’t expanded Medicaid to cover more low-income adults. Meanwhile, some lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly are trying to pass their own version of the Momnibus.
Rep. Cori Bush shared her experience with doctors who ‘refused to believe me’
On Twitter, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) marked BMHW by describing the arrival of her first child. At five months pregnant, Bush told doctors she was in pain, but they “refused to believe me,” she said. She went into labor and gave birth to her son prematurely.
“He just celebrated his 21st birthday, but so many Black children, so many Black mothers, haven’t survived,” Bush tweeted. She urged the public to “protect Black maternal and infant health.”
The Black Maternal Health Conference started by acknowledging recent losses
The Black Maternal Health Conference began with a moment of silence. In her opening address, Aina of Black Mamas Matter Alliance remembered “our elder midwives that recently transitioned”: Claudia Booker, Afua Hassan and Nonkululeko Tyehemba.
“Revolutionaries in their own right who dedicated their entire lives to preserving our Black birthing traditions and saving our communities,” said Aina, who also acknowledged people who have died before, during and after childbirth. “We lift up the families impacted by maternal mortality and racial injustices.”
April 21 marks one year since Amber Rose Isaac, 26, died after giving birth to her son, Elias.
In remembrance, Bruce McIntyre III — Isaac’s partner and Elias’s father — is hosting a candle-lighting ceremony on April 25 in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. He is simultaneously launching a campaign through his foundation to highlight families who “went unheard” and to emphasize the importance of access to midwifery and doula care.
McIntyre is one of hundreds of fathers who are dealing with loss as a result of the maternal mortality crisis. To honor his late wife Kira Dixon Johnson, Charles Johnson IV worked with Congress to pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act in 2018, which former president Donald Trump signed into law. The legislation provides funding for states and tribal nations to establish maternal mortality review committees. Each MMRC collects data surrounding maternal deaths and provides recommendations about how to prevent them.
Some podcasts highlighted throughout BMHW
• “Sisters in Loss”
• “Dem Black Mamas”
If you or someone you know needs help, you can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to get free and confidential mental health information, treatment, and recovery referral services in English and Spanish.
This story was funded by the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this story.