The United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates of any developed nation and, between 2018 and 2021, that rate increased. In 2021, the maternal death rate among Black Americans was 2.6 times higher than the rate for white Americans.
And those trends are playing out right here in Connecticut.
“In New Haven, Black women are seven times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related complications,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, told a crowd of legislators, advocates, and community members gathered Tuesday morning in Hartford to kick off Black Maternal Health Week.
The press conference’s co-organizers, Porter and Rep. Treneé McGee, D-West Haven, spoke about how Black people bear the brunt of the country’s maternal mortality crisis.
Several people spoke in favor of Senate Bill 986, a proposal that bolsters access to care for pregnant people by, among other measures, creating a certification pathway for doulas, licensing free-standing birth centers and directing state agencies to design a program for nurse home visiting to help improve access to services early in an infant’s life.
Many focused on how the proposal’s provision to certify doula services, in particular, could improve experiences and outcomes for Black pregnant people.
Doulas offer physical and emotional support throughout pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. They also act as advocates for parents during and after pregnancy and help facilitate communication between their clients and hospital staff.
The bill was passed out of the Public Health Committee and must now go before the Senate. It would need to be approved in the House as well and be signed by Gov. Ned Lamont to become law.
A recent report by the Century Foundation outlines the critical historical role that doulas played in the birthing process, particularly within the Black community.
“Doula care has a rich cultural history for Black women and birthing people. Throughout the dehumanizing history of slavery in the United States, enslaved people preserved many traditional African birth practices, for which birth workers, such as midwives and doulas, were of vital importance. Even following Emancipation, Black birth workers continued to bridge the gap between their disenfranchised communities and the U.S. health care system,” wrote Vina Smith-Ramakrishnan, a senior policy associate.
Last year, Connecticut appointed an 18-member panel to provide input on the doula certification process. The certification process proposed in SB 986 came out of that panel.
Whitney Anderson, a young, Black mother, who gave birth to her son three years ago, said having an advocate would have made her birthing and postpartum experience less traumatic.
“My birthing process definitely did not go the way that I had planned,” said Anderson, who ended up having an emergency C-section after doctors said they found an issue with her placenta. She spent 12 days in the hospital in recovery.
“To have that professional, certified person that has been doing this for years and years and understands the Black woman and her place during this birthing process, it would definitely make a difference,” she said.
Studies show that the presence of doulas can increase patient satisfaction for those giving birth and improve certain measures of health for newborns.
“This whole challenge that we have bypasses your economic status, your educational status and every status you can imagine,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, as he closed out the press conference, citing research that Black people with a college degree die from pregnancy-related complications at higher rates than white women without a high school degree.
“Race is not a biological risk factor. Race is a social construct,” said Anwar.