Kamala Harris: With All-White Debate, Everyone Is ‘Accountable’ On Black Maternal Health

SAN FRANCISCO — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said Tuesday ahead of a roundtable on Black maternal health that it is up to all the 2020 presidential candidates, regardless of their race or gender, to prioritize such issues. 

HuffPost asked Harris, who dropped out of the race in December, whether she thought key perspectives would be missing from the Democratic debate stage in Nevada on Wednesday, specifically on issues like Black maternal mortality, given that all the candidates who qualified were white

“I strongly believe it should not be incumbent on a Black woman to talk about Black women’s issues,” Harris said. “If you want to be a leader in any field, much less president of the United States, [Black maternal health] should be one of your issues. It should be a priority issue, you should know about it, you should understand it and you should be committed to dealing with it.” 

“And certainly that was a voice that I would bring to the debate stage when I was in the race,” Harris added. “And I hold everyone accountable, regardless of their gender, of their race, for creating priorities around this.” 

Some of the leading candidates in the race have spoken to the issue of Black maternal mortality in their campaigns, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Harris, who has championed the issue for years as a senator, reintroduced her Maternal CARE Act in 2019, which would direct funds to medical schools and other health programs to carry out implicit bias trainings and give grants to states to implement “culturally competent” medical home programs for at-risk pregnancies.

The senator kicked off Tuesday’s event at her Senate offices by reading out what she called a “startling” statistic: Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. 

Over two dozen women, almost all Black, attended the roundtable, with several telling personal stories of facing racism in their experiences either as patients or as health providers and advocates in the field of maternal health. 

“I had one pediatrician say, ‘You’re really great with the teen moms — because you used to be one.’ And I wasn’t,” said Tanefer Camara, who is a lactation consultant in Oakland. “What I said was: ‘I’m great with all moms.’” 

Karesha Boyd, who is a mother of four, recounted how she went to the hospital for her last pregnancy and was told she had a “tubal” or ectopic pregnancy, when fertilized eggs grow outside the uterus. She was sent home with medication. Later she was still bleeding and began vomiting, so she called an ambulance. 

“The ambulance driver told me: ‘They shouldn’t have sent you home,’” Boyd said. “I knew it didn’t feel right.”

Once back at the hospital, after getting surgery, she was told she was no longer pregnant. Months later, convinced she still was, she went back to the hospital. 

“I ended up having the baby. This is the baby,” she said, rocking her baby, whom she was breastfeeding. “They thought that I was crazy. That’s why it’s important for [Harris’] bill to pass.” 

After several women shared their stories, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the surgeon general of California, noted that the U.S. health care system is “just like our broader American society … built on a history of racism and oppression.” 

Burke Harris noted that hospitals were segregated only a few decades ago. Later Dr. Stephen Lockhart, the chief medical officer of the Sutter Health hospital system in Northern California, said he was born at home in St. Louis in 1958 because hospitals were still segregated at the time.

Harris, who noted that California is a “great leader” on Black maternal health, asked for ideas from the room to improve her legislation. 

Some women suggested going further than implicit bias trainings and including accountability measures as well as a financial impact for hospitals that don’t show improvement. Harris said she “couldn’t agree more” and requested ideas for best practices around measuring outcomes.

In a similar vein, Warren proposed an idea in April to have medical providers’ funding be contingent on the quality of care they give to black mothers.

“The hospitals are just going to get a lump of money, and if they bring down those maternal mortality rates, then they get a bonus, and if they don’t, then they’re going to have money taken away from them,” the presidential candidate said. 

Harris concluded Tuesday’s event by saying Black maternal health “can’t just be a fight waged by Black women.” 

“Everyone has to be held accountable for this issue,” Harris said, adding that “elections matter.” 

“This should not be the issue that it is. You should not be telling the stories you just told, not in this year of our Lord 2020,” Harris said. “Let’s just keep fighting.”

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