Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, said maternal death rates in Louisiana are only bad because Black mothers are included.
The Bayou State ranks second-last among states accessed for maternal mortality. Cassidy, who represents the state, argued it’s because of its large Black population.
While Black people make up 12.4 percent of the nation’s population, 31.4 percent of Louisiana’s population is Black, U.S. Census data show. Cassidy said the state’s rates would not be as bad if Black women were not counted.
“About a third of our population is African-American; African-Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality,” Cassidy told Politico. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear.”
Data show that Black mothers in the U.S. are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or shortly after birth than white mothers. In Louisiana, Black mothers are four times more susceptible to pregnancy-related death than white mothers. Overall, the U.S. has the highest mortality rate among developed countries. Health officials report that 17 mothers die for every 100,000 pregnancies.
Cassidy, a longtime physician, appears to be aware of health disparities that impact maternal mortality among Black women. Reports show the U.S. senator has proposed legislation to address the maternal health gap.
“Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality,” Cassidy told Politico.
Several factors are behind the disparity, according to the Centers for Disease Control, including structural racism and implicit bias.
“There’s two things that are always going to drive the disparities. It’s going to be systemic racism — the historical processes and policies that have been put in place that disenfranchise Black and brown people — and then the other part of that is going to be implicit bias,” said Veronica Gillispie-Bell, medical director of Louisiana’s Perinatal Quality Collaborative.
Black women are at higher risk for underlying conditions that could lead to pregnancy-related problems such as preeclampsia and diabetes. They also have less access to quality health care and “fair opportunities for economic, physical and emotional health,” the CDC notes.
“Black and brown individuals don’t always get the same quality of health care in the health care system as their white counterparts,” said Gillispie-Bell, who is also an obstetrician.
Cassidy co-sponsored a bill requiring the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to report and provide resources for states for remote monitoring of blood pressure, glucose and other health metrics for pregnant women and post-postpartum mothers. He co-sponsored the John Lewis NIMHD Research Endowment Revitalization Act of 2021 to study racial health disparities.
Still, Gillispie-Bell said blaming Black women for the state’s high maternal mortality rate “is out of context.”
“Race is a social construct. It is not a biological condition,” she said.
Cassidy received immediate backlash on social media for his theory. Many commenters called out the Republican senator for this racism and the irony of his statement.
“This is the most racist sh** I’ve seen this year. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) Louisiana, a white man, said that — “Maternal death rates are only bad if you count Black women,” wrote Twitter user Lakota Man.
“The dick of the day trophy goes to Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy for suggesting that his state’s maternal death rate would be absolutely fine if they would just stop counting all of the Black women,” author Jason Overstreet said. “The GOP is nothing without its abject racism.”
Cassidy’s remarks come as the U.S. Supreme Court is reportedly poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s right to abortion. Health experts say the decision could disproportionately impact Black women because of economic and geographical factors. More than half of the nation’s Black population lives in the South.
Research also shows abortion restrictions could impact maternal date rates as high-risk patients find it harder to seek options. However, Cassidy has dismissed those findings.
“If we’re using abortion to limit maternal deaths, that’s kind of an odd way to approach the problem,” he said.
If the high court overturns Roe, abortion would automatically become illegal in 13 states, including Louisiana.
“There are going to be women that will die from pregnancy because of this decision, period,” said Dr. Amy Addante, an OB-GYN in Illinois and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.