Speaking Out for Maternal Health in Washington DC

On May 6, the Thursday before Mother’s Day, Amnesty International, Childbirth Connection, the NAACP and the White Ribbon Alliance, in cooperation with Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Reps. Gwen Moore (D-WI) and Lois Capps (D-CA), organized a congressional briefing on the maternal health crisis in the United States and around the world. In this post, four DC-area Amnesty members and activists reflect on the event.

Foreground, L-R: Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox.

Foreground, L-R: Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox.

Becky Farrar:

Last week’s congressional briefing on maternal health was a fantastic event – with fabulous speakers and a standing-room-only crowd. And after this week’s introduction of the Global MOMS Act, last week’s panel feels like a wonderful prelude.

The introduction of the Global MOMS Act is very exciting news for all U.S. Amnesty members who have been actively campaigning on maternal health, and calling for action. Last week’s briefing was just one of the many actions Amnesty International has taken to bring attention to the maternal health crisis. Members have made worry dolls, taken online actions and made calls to their Congressional representatives and the Department of Health and Human Services, and visited Congressional offices and actively lobbied for an Office of Maternal Health.

Claudia Vandermade: I learned that the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States is caused by many factors, including too much and too little medical care. In a country that possesses the most advanced medical technology in the world, and devotes vast amounts of money to health, great pockets of our society face unconscionable risks — and the resulting deaths are preventable. I was impressed by Chairman Conyers’s commitment to improving maternal health in the United States and reducing the number of preventable deaths.

Howard Schreier: The panelists all pointed out that the high rate of maternal deaths and near misses in the United States is primarily a consequence of disadvantage: poverty and discrimination. But there is also unnecessary danger for women who are educated and affluent and well-insured.

Ari Grebstein: Despite the tremendous evidence that demonstrates that prenatal care guided by proper education is a crucial way to increase maternal health, there continues to be an emphasis on over-treating expecting moms through procedures such as cesarean sections. Not a single state meets the World Health Organization upper limit of 15% cesarean sections.

The panel was a great mix of advocates with unique perspectives and expertise regarding the comprehensive failure of our country’s health care system to ensure maternal health. As Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed out, the United States ranks forty-first in the world in terms of lifetime risk of maternal death. Jennie Joseph, a midwife practicing near Orlando, Florida, personalized this statistic as she spoke of the lonely road she and the women she helps face in providing the proper education prior to child birth, constantly challenged by the many road blocks our health care system creates.

Nan Strauss, researcher for Amnesty International on the report Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the United States, noted the positive aspects of health care reform — like increased funding for community health centers and expansion of Medicaid. But she stressed the need for Amnesty to continue to push the government to fill in the gaps where the health care reform bill fails.

Yet nothing spelled out the problem of our health care system’s failure to provide the obvious as did Clare Johnson, one of the panel members. She lost her sister to deep vein thrombosis (DVT ). The information her sister, Linda, received from health care professionals was so thoroughly misguided that she was told how to acclimate her pets to the new baby, but not that it is essential to go to the hospital immediately when experiencing very specific and easily explained symptoms characteristic of DVT after childbirth. Had Linda been given proper information, she could be living a healthy and happy life with her son, Benjamin, instead of having suffered an unnecessary and tragic death.

In hearing the testimonials from leading members of Amnesty International, Congressman and Chair of the Judiciary Committee Rep. Conyers, and Jennie Joseph, a midwife who moved to the country 20 years ago with the assumption that her expertise in midwifery would be met with open arms and many happy babies, I was shocked to learn about a hole in the health care system that has gone unnoticed for too long.

I was alarmed at the lack of education and resources that are invested in maternal health by our country’s health care system. All of the panel members brought unique perspectives to the conversation, but one thing rings painfully true. Until maternal health care is taken more seriously at a preventative level, we continue to tempt fate by allowing the building blocks of our society to crumble, the safe birth of our children and mothers.

Hopefully the pain that Clare Johnson experienced thirty years ago after losing her sister Linda to an easily preventable death will not be the same pain felt by a devastated family member thirty years from now.

L-R: Clare Johnson, White Ribbon Alliance Global Secretariat Deputy Director Betsy McCallon, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox, Amnesty International USA Researcher Nan Strauss, midwife Jennie Joseph, Childbirth Connection Executive Director Maureen Corry

L-R: Clare Johnson, White Ribbon Alliance Global Secretariat Deputy Director Betsy McCallon, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox, Amnesty International USA Researcher Nan Strauss, midwife Jennie Joseph, Childbirth Connection Executive Director Maureen Corry

Becky, again:

There are numbers that shock and sadden me no matter how often I hear them: that African-American women are four times more likely to die than Caucasian women; that the United States ranks 41st in the world for lifetime risk of maternal death.

There were many very powerful statements made at last week’s event. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Women are dying in this country, not because of disease but because they are trying to give birth … This is not just a health crisis; we’re talking about a human rights crisis.”

– Larry Cox, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

“There’s an old African proverb, that if you take care of the mothers, you take care of the family.”

– Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy and Director, NAACP Washington Bureau

“This is a symptom of a far greater problem. Inside the ghettos, people are not eating properly, being housed properly or getting a proper education … We need to help bring more people into a circle of knowledge.”

– Chairman John Conyers

“There is a basic equal right to be well.”

– Representative Gwen Moore

“I advocate for common sense childbirth. Healthy mothers have healthy births. We need to decide – are we going to pay for prenatal care or neonatal care?”

– Midwife Jennie Joseph

“We need everyone to be a champion and ally on this issue. Remember the women who aren’t here today and do something.”

– Larry Cox, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

The backdrop for the Congressional briefing, painted by a DC artist and activist Nadine Bloch. At left are hundreds of worry dolls, created by AIUSA activists across the country to symbolize concern for women dying in pregnancy and childbirth.

The backdrop for the Congressional briefing, painted by a DC artist and activist Nadine Bloch. At left are hundreds of worry dolls, created by AIUSA activists across the country to symbolize concern for women dying in pregnancy and childbirth.

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2 thoughts on “Speaking Out for Maternal Health in Washington DC

  1. I feel this is a very important, yet neglected, topic. I would be interested to see how often maternal health crosses the mind of others on this forum when thinking about human rights issues.

  2. I feel this is a very important, yet neglected, topic. I would be interested to see how often maternal health crosses the mind of others on this forum when thinking about human rights issues.