Opinion Pieces

Columbian: Preventing Maternal Deaths Act will help save lives

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Washington, February 17, 2019 | comments
Charles Johnson lives by the motto: “Wake up, make Mommy proud, repeat.” As a single father of two boys, Charles strives to honor his late wife by raising awareness of a health crisis facing our nation: maternal mortality. Charles’ wife, Kira, died hours after giving birth to a healthy baby. Tragically, about 900 women die each year in Southwest Washington and across the U.S. during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum — and the rate has more than doubled since 2000.
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Charles Johnson lives by the motto: “Wake up, make Mommy proud, repeat.” As a single father of two boys, Charles strives to honor his late wife by raising awareness of a health crisis facing our nation: maternal mortality. Charles’ wife, Kira, died hours after giving birth to a healthy baby. Tragically, about 900 women die each year in Southwest Washington and across the U.S. during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum — and the rate has more than doubled since 2000.

This is happening right now, in the 21st century, in a country whose medical care and technology sets the standard for the rest of the world. Despite this technological advantage, the U.S. ranks 47th for maternal mortality — meaning more mothers die from pregnancy-related causes here than in any other developed nation in the world. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is that government researchers believe nearly 60 percent of these maternal deaths are preventable.

A health crisis of this magnitude demands immediate action at the highest levels of government — or so you’d think. But before I was elected to Congress, there were no federal efforts to address the maternal death epidemic. In fact, there were no congressional commissions or working groups dedicated to any maternity-related challenges.

I’m often asked what it means to be a mom serving in Congress — and here lies my answer. It takes a mother to understand and give the necessary focus to solving the serious challenges that face all moms. And in this case, it took a mother who’s had to overcome some particularly unique challenges to prevail over the destructive partisanship in Washington, D.C.

My initial step was to join with a Democrat colleague, Lucille Roybal-Allard — also a mom — and form the very first congressional Maternity Care Caucus. One by one, we began to take on issues: retraining TSA personnel who were throwing away breast milk during security screenings, demanding that pharmaceutical trials include more pregnant and nursing women to prevent adverse medication effects, and pushing for food fortification to prevent birth defects. But the maternal death crisis loomed. One reason it had remained unaddressed is because no one knew where to start.

Enter my bipartisan bill, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act. This bill recognizes that researchers and policymakers simply don’t have enough data. For instance, why are African-American mothers four times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes as white moms? And why do women living in rural areas face a higher risk? The Preventing Maternal Deaths Act allows us to finally understand what’s happening.

The bill received a congressional hearing in September and appeared to be sailing toward the finish line. Then, political gamesmanship nearly sidelined all of my efforts.

The bill stalled. Democrats in Congress were suddenly raising technical objection after technical objection. I was facing a difficult re-election and it had become clear that Democratic party leaders didn’t want to hand me a “political win.” Sadly, in D.C., winning an election had eclipsed finding a solution to the maternal death crisis.

But this wasn’t the first challenge I’ve had to overcome — not by a long shot. I’ll never forget the day doctors told us our daughter — now 5 — had a zero percent chance of survival. We fought against those odds and won. I knew we could prevail here, too.

My team and I redoubled our efforts. We resolved the technical issues with the bill. I continued to gather bipartisan support. We refused to take “no” for an answer. Finally, the House was allowed to vote on the bill, and on Dec. 21, the president signed it into law.

Every day, Charles Johnson must wake up and raise his kids in a world where their mom is no longer with them. Somewhere, he finds the strength to not only push on, but advocate for an end to the endemic trend of maternal deaths. No matter the challenges that lie ahead, Congress has to mirror the perseverance shown by Charles to reverse this crisis. The Preventing Maternal Deaths Act is an important part of that journey.
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