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Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard, Robin Kelly, Alma Adams, Hakeem Jeffries and Lauren Underwood talk about maternal health in America. Photo: robinkelly.house.gov/Wikimedia
Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard, Robin Kelly, Alma Adams, Hakeem Jeffries and Lauren Underwood talk about maternal health in America. Photo: robinkelly.house.gov/Wikimedia

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, other reps, speak on maternal health amid a climate crisis and COVID

For Black and Latina women in the U.S., childbirth is one of the most dangerous things they can do.

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Today, having the status of a Black or Latina woman means you are most likely to die during childbirth. Black and Latinx children are also at a higher risk of being born premature, underweight, or worst of all, being stillborn.

The coronavirus pandemic has already exposed the dark truths of our healthcare system. A system where BIPOC individuals are affected the most because of an already present disadvantage. 

“This is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and yet we know that maternal health is often a function of race and geography as it relates to disproportionate outcomes that have befallen Black and Latina women,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), who moderated Tuesday evening’s Black and Brown Maternal Health and Environmental Justice Roundtable.
 

The United States has an inadequate healthcare infrastructure, especially in regards to BIPOC communities. The pandemic has highlighted these already-present disparities, but maternal health has yet to garner attention it should in relation to our changing climate.

“It is our hope that we can make tremendous progress on the issue of Black and Brown maternal health as we emerge from this pandemic,” Hakeem said. 

“In the U.S. the rate of maternal mortality is now worse than it was 25 years ago,” said Rep. Alma Adams (NC-12). “For Black women, the risk is 3-4 times higher than white women.”

These disparities are further exacerbated by environmental racism. Exposure to health pollution, for instance, is directly correlated to low birth weights and premature births among BIPOC women.

There is a strong correlation in heat, pollutants, and issues in births, confirmed Dr. Bruce Bekkar, an obstetrician that joined the roundtable with the representatives and studies “pervasive climate-related impacts and bad birth outcomes.

Dr. Bekkar says stillbirths are a devastating situation women have to live through, but so are premature and underweight births. Above all, Dr. Bekkar stressed these heightened cases among BIPOC women are not random, but a cause and effect.

“Climate change is like a cancer,” he said. 

Therefore, all general policies to address climate change will directly affect maternal health. Policies that address environmental racism like redlining, for instance, expose women to more pollution, as does the roll back on the Paris Agreement to cut down oil use.

Because of racist redlining tactics, BIPOC communities live in the unhealthiest portions of cities. 

In California, the risk goes beyond demographics. The state is an explicit example of these racist systems in play. 

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), co-chair of the Maternity Care Caucus shared with the roundtable her experience of representing a district that has felt these issues on a deeper level.

“I represent the most Hispanic district in the U.S.,” Roybal-Allard began. “More than 86% of my constituents identify as Latino. When you add my Black and Asian constituents, my district is more than 94 %  [BIPOC].”

Roybal-Allard dispelled the myth that the need to fight against environmental justice is new to BIPOC communities, which is far from the truth. 

“For generations, these communities have fought against the projects that endanger the health and safety of their families. But their cries and fears of protest continued to fall on deaf ears, until the negative impacts were felt by more affluent communities. Only then did the environmental movement begin at large,” she said.

Los Angeles is a perfect example. 

“Freeways were built through Latino communities, which continue to poison the air with lead,” Roybal-Allard continued.

Her district, in particular, is the site of a chemical mixing facility that polluted the soil and groundwater with dangerous contaminantes from the 1940s to 1991.

It also wasn’t until 2013 that her district learned that for decades, a battery recycling plant had been emitting toxic metal dust, contaminating at least 10,000 homes. 

“That contamination has caused serious health and disability issues for families. Especially their children,” she said.

The representative also recalled an event from the start of January 2020, during which a Delta plane dumped over 15,000 gallons of aviation fluid over one of her cities, including over children’s schools.

Roybal-Allard stressed that advocacy and research to raise awareness and knowledge on these issues is critical to further examine the environment’s effects on pregnant women. 

Rep. Robin Kelly (IL-02) serves on the energy and commerce committee, including the health subcommittee. Like Roybal-Allard, she has been using her platform to advocate for maternal health since she first entered Congress.

“Climate change is the fight of our generation, and it is encouraging to me that our panelists today are using research and advocacy to fight the effects of climate change on maternal and infant outcomes on communities of color. I couldn't agree with Lucil more,” she said.

“I’ve seen in my district, in my low-income district, where many of my Latinx and Black constituents live, that they have been fighting companies that came to the area with pet coke,” said Kelly. “And these companies, we noticed, they go from one low-income area to another, across the United States.”

This is the legacy that must end. The time is now to shift the public’s perception of climate change from images of shrinking glaciers and rising sea levels to pregnant Black and Latina mothers, because unlike the rest of the U.S. population, they are the ones feeling the effects right now.

Maternal health and climate activism aren’t often spoken about in a way that correlates and directly determines the health of a community. This is intersectional activism that is in dire need and must be translated into meaningful action.

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