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    Last week, I was proud to convene a hearing of the Cook County Board’s Health and Hospitals Committee to discuss the maternal mortality crisis, an issue that is too often overlooked across the country.

    The urgency of holding this hearing cannot be overstated. We recently heard the news of the tragic death of Tori Bowie, 2016 Olympian and track athlete, who died in her eighth month of pregnancy, likely due to respiratory distress and eclampsia. An astounding 75% of the gold medal-winning team that Bowie was on has either died from or experienced these complications during pregnancy.

    That statistic is shocking, and it’s indicative of a much larger problem. Regardless of socioeconomic status, Black women are three to five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And here in Illinois, we outpace this national average, where Black women are six times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than White women. Systemic disadvantages in our health care system can lead to Black women facing more barriers when it comes to accessing information, medications, and specialists — in addition to facing bias and discrimination from their doctors. 

    Black women in Illinois — and across our country — deserve better. And we know it’s possible to improve the standards of care and combat the maternal mortality crisis. Other industrialized countries like Spain, Japan, and Italy all have fewer than three maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births — in fact, as of 2021, the U.S. was the only industrialized nation in the world whose maternal mortality rate is rising. There is no excuse for us not to act.

    Last week’s Board hearing featured powerful testimony from experts on the subject, focusing on the experiences of mothers of color who are disproportionately impacted. Elected officials including Congresswoman Robin Kelly and Illinois State Rep. Mary Flowers spoke about their policy efforts, and doctors from Cook County shared their stories. Mothers, doctors, doulas, and more – many who are women of color who have experienced pregnancy complications themselves – described the dire situation we find ourselves in when it comes to maternal health during pregnancy and childbirth.

    Coming out of this hearing, there are important takeaways that I will pursue on the Cook County Board and that we must take into consideration as we look to protect everyone in our communities. We need to work to ensure that women have access to quality health care during and after pregnancy and childbirth. Conditions like preeclampsia don’t have to be deadly — if caught early enough, these pregnancy-related health issues can be monitored and managed. But having that access isn’t always easy — women are more likely than men to be uninsured, with Black and Hispanic women uninsured at higher rates.

    But access to health care isn’t enough on its own. Bias in medicine needs to be examined and dismantled on an individual level. Hospitals should be providing equity training for their health care providers, ensuring that patients receive the same caliber of care, regardless of their race. We should also create more robust access for pregnant patients to have doulas, who have been shown to reduce racial disparities in health outcomes and can work as patient advocates in medical settings.

    We’re lucky in Illinois to have representatives who are advocating for equity in pregnancy care and childbirth. In 2019, Congresswoman Kelly introduced the MOMMA Act, with US Senators Duckworth and Durbin introducing companion legislation in the Senate that would address this crisis through a six-pronged approach. While the act has not passed out of Congress, it provides a roadmap to make maternal mortality an issue of the past.

    It’s far past time for us to use every tool we have to bring down our maternal mortality rate in our state and country, and to address the disparities that Black women face when it comes to pregnancy-related health care. I’m hopeful that our hearing last week shined some much-needed light on the issue, and that it will spur conversations, legislation and action to help protect women in this state.

    Donna Miller is th Cook County Commissioner for the Sixth District.

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