In an interview with POLITICO’s Health Reporter Sarah Owermohle, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) made some downright ridiculous remarks about the statistics around Black maternal health in his state. He got heat for his comments, and of course he’s now claiming that everyone took his statements out of context.
During the interview for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health series Public Health on the Brink, the senator, who calls himself “unapologetically pro-life,” acknowledged the need to support mothers during pregnancy and beyond. But that’s where it all stops making sense.
When asked about the high maternal mortality rate in Louisiana, Cassidy responded by saying that the figures wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t include the Black moms. “About a third of our population is African American. African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear,” he said. “For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.”
But in one of the most head-scratching comments made during the interview, Cassidy said, “Sometimes maternal mortality includes up to a year after birth. That would include someone being killed by her boyfriend.”
Louisiana places pregnancy associated deaths in three categories:
- Pregnancy-related deaths - The death of a woman during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy from a pregnancy complication.
- Pregnancy-associated, but not related deaths - The death of a woman during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy from a cause that is not related to pregnancy (ex. car crash).
- Pregnancy-associated, but unable to determine relatedness deaths - A pregnancy-associated death where the cause of death is unable to be determined as “pregnancy-related” or “pregnancy-associated, but not related” (ex. suicide).
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For the record, here’s how the World Health Organization defines maternal death:
“The death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.”
At The Root, we’ve reported on the disheartening statistics around maternal mortality in the United States, particularly when it comes to Black women. But when you drill down to the state level, Louisiana’s numbers are even more discouraging. According to the state’s health department, four Black mothers die for every white mother in Louisiana. And the state ranks 47th out of 48 states for maternal mortality. The department acknowledges racial disparities in healthcare in the report. “Longstanding racial bias in health care plays a role in maternal outcomes as African American women often have their concerns dismissed and may be misdiagnosed for a series of fatal conditions during pregnancy.” But for some reason, Senator Cassidy believes that the stats would be different if you just took away all of the Black people.
The Senator used Twitter to walk back his comments, accusing the media of taking his statements out of context. He made a special point of highlighting bipartisan legislation he introduced back in 2020 that would “expand coverage for remote health monitoring devices for mothers enrolled in Medicaid.”
But Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) is having none of that. In a May 23 statement, she responded to Cassidy’s remarks and called him out for ignoring the real issues around Black maternal deaths in his state and around the country.
“We know that structural inequities in our healthcare system, from implicit bias among medical professionals to generations of disinvestment in underserved communities, are the reason that Black mothers are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white mothers. In Louisiana, that number jumps to four, because in Senator Cassidy’s home state, health inequities are even more pronounced than they are on the national level.”
“One would think that a truly ‘pro-life’ elected leader should have a vested interest in eliminating the health care disparities that are killing Black mothers at frightening rates. But based on his comments — and his party’s open acceptance of white supremacist ideology — Senator Cassidy seems comfortable allowing Black mothers to die as a result of pregnancies that his party would like to force them to carry.”
Let’s hope that Sen. Cassidy, who is a gastroenterologist, reads Rep. Watson Coleman’s comments and really looks at why Black mothers are dying in his state.