Missouri Rep. Cori Bush revealed last week that she nearly lost her two babies due to pregnancy-related complications while testifying before Congress about Black maternal health.
“Every day, Black women are subjected to harsh and racist treatment during pregnancy and childbirth,” Bush said. “Every day, Black women die because the system denies our humanity. … I am committed to doing the absolute most to protect Black mothers, to protect Black babies.”
Bush testified on Thursday, May 6, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee as the House considers the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020.
The St. Louis native and mother of two shared her personal ordeal with maternal health complications, beginning with the circumstances surrounding the birth of her first child Zion, 21 years ago.
“Zion, my eldest child, was born at 23 weeks gestation versus what is considered a normal pregnancy at 40 weeks,” Bush said, adding that at first she didn’t think it was possible for there to be a complication with the pregnancy before she became sick and suffered daily vomiting.
“Around five months, I went to see my doctor for a routine prenatal visit. As I was sitting in the doctor’s office, I noticed a picture on the wall that said ‘If you feel like something is wrong, something is wrong. Tell your doctor.’ I felt like something was wrong, so that’s what I did, I told my doctor, I said that I was having severe pains and she said ‘Oh, no you’re fine. You’re fine. Go home and I’ll see you next time.’ So that’s what I did. I went home.”
A week later, Bush went into preterm labor. Zion was born at one pound, three ounces. “His ears were still in his head. His eyes were still fused shut. His fingers were smaller than rice, and his skin was translucent. A Black baby, translucent skin.”
Bush said she was told there was a zero percent chance that Zion would live, but the chief of neonatal surgery took on the case and the baby survived after spending four months in the NICU. Her doctor apologized, saying, “You were right and I didn’t listen to you.”
Black women in the United States are at least three times more likely to die of pregnancy complications than white women. The disparity transcends socioeconomic lines: Black women with a college degree are 5.2 times more likely to die of such complications than white women with a similar education level, and college-educated Black women are twice as likely to experience a severe physical or mental pregnancy-related complication than a white woman without a high school degree.
The heath crisis also impacts newborn babies. A 2020 study found that Black babies are less likely to die when cared for by Black doctors compared to when they are cared for by white doctors.
Bush also spoke about the way she advocated for herself in pursuit of a healthier outcome during her second pregnancy.
While visiting a different doctor for a 16-week ultrasound during her second pregnancy, Bush learned she was in preterm labor again.
“The doctor told me that the baby was going to abort,” Bush explained. “I said, ‘No, you have to do something.’ But he was adamant. He said, ‘Just go home, let it abort. You can get pregnant again because that’s what you people do.’”
Bush’s sister was with her at the time. After the doctor left, she picked up a chair and threw it down the hallway to attract attention.
“Nurses came running from everywhere to see what was wrong,” Bush said. She was put on a stretcher, and her doctor from her first pregnancy came to check on her the next morning. He placed a cerclage on her uterus, and Bush was able to carry to term her daughter, Angel, who is now 20 years old.
In a tweet about her testimony, Bush said that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth because “our doctors don’t believe our pain.” She continued, “My children almost became a statistic. I almost became a statistic.”
Mothers, spouses and family members of Black people who died in childbirth also testified before the committee. congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Alma Adams and Lauren Underwood were also a part of the panel.
The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, sponsored by Adams, Underwood, Vice President Kamala Harris during her time as a senator, is made up of nine separate bills. The legislation would make investments in the social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes, like housing; fund community organizations and studies; diversify the perinatal workforce; and improve maternal health care for incarcerated women and women in underserved areas.