Our Texas-Sized Maternal Mortality Problem

Melody (far right) with labmates and Rep. Thierry at the town hall. Their shirts represent that ‘Texas is #1 in maternal mortality’, with worse rates than China, Russia, and Iran.

The evening of July 11th, I joined a diverse group of community members at the Houston YWCA for the Maternal Mortality Town Hall held by Texas State Representative Shawn Thierry. Rep. Thierry represents House District 146, which includes parts of the Texas Medical Center, where people from all over the world come for care. Yet, in this same district, pregnant women face unacceptable mortality rates. We gathered to learn how to respond to the fact that Texas has a higher maternal mortality rate than any country in the developed world. Joining Rep. Thierry as speakers for the meeting were Dr. Carla Ortique, an ob-gyn from Texas Children’s Hospital, and midwife Afua Hassan.

Rep. Thierry provided background on the issue and the 2017 legislative session, explaining the need for her special session bill HB51 to keep the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force open until 2023. She related the comments of one of her colleagues in the legislature who had dismissed the need to further invest in understanding the issue, claiming he already knew the reason behind our high maternal mortality rates: it was because of the immigrants. In reality, African American women in Texas experience the highest rates of maternal mortality at almost three times that of women of other races and ethnicities, followed by Caucasian women. Latina women experience the lowest rates of maternal mortality. These are statistics presented by the task force in their 2016 report. This example should caution us against assuming we already know the answers. We must continue working to understand the drivers behind our maternal mortality rates, in order to be able to act effectively.

Maternal mortality is intertwined with other hot-button issues, including foster care and health insurance coverage. One of the key topics this past legislative session was the reform of Child Protective Services. When a mother dies in childbirth, her child is more likely to end up in the foster care system. Healthcare legislation could affect new mothers, especially if they lose insurance coverage or if maternity and newborn care is removed from the list of essential health benefits. This could exacerbate maternal health problems if women opt for cheaper, less safe childbirth options, or are discharged from the hospital prematurely.

Maternal mortality affects individuals across the political spectrum. As Rep. Thierry pointed out, it should be a priority for those who are pro-life as well as those who are pro-choice. It merits bipartisan support, and thus, I am hopeful for HB51 in the special session. However, everything in the special session, starting on July 18th, hinges on time and getting this bill on the schedule. My fear is that between the furor caused by anti-abortion and ‘bathroom bill’ legislation, the issue of maternal mortality will be left, once again, to die.

Call your elected officials and tell them to support HB51.

This post was authored by Melody Tan, Rice University Bioengineering PhD student and Baker Institute for Public Policy graduate intern for the Center for Health and Biosciences.