NBEC Responds to Bill Cassidy
On May 19th, in an interview with POLITICO healthcare reporter Sarah Owermohle, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy was asked about maternal health and mortality in the state that he represents. He asserted the following: “About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear…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.”
Senator Bill Cassidy’s statement is inherently flawed. He suggested that extracting Black maternal mortality rates from White maternal mortality rates in the state will demonstrate a better picture of reproductive health in Louisiana. This distinct disregard for the lives of Black people and other racialized and minoritized groups harkens back to eugenics and population control measures while continuing to perpetuate the White supremacist narrative that only White lives matter. While we know that this is not true, what does it mean when one of only four physicians in the U.S. Senate confidently proclaims that Black women and birthing people should be “corrected” or erased from maternal mortality data?
His comment that Black women are dying for “whatever the reason,” highlights his inability or unwillingness as a physician and elected official to recognize the social conditions, including structural racism, intentional neglect and disregard experienced by Black women and birthing people in maternal care in the state. According to a 2019 report from the Louisiana Department of Health, Black women and birthing people are four times more likely to die as compared to White women in the state and we know why: Historical systemic anti-Black racism targeted toward Black mothers and birthing people and impacting all People of Color. Sen. Cassidy fails to recognize that White maternal mortality rates in Louisiana are also abysmal for reasons linked to capitalism, classism and gender oppression.
In the interview, Senator Cassidy also touches upon the polarizing issue of abortion. His comments come at a time when the world waits for an official ruling from the Supreme Court on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that was heard in December of last year. The sentiments raised in his comments about maternal mortality are strongly connected to abortion and what we know to be people’s right to choose what happens to their bodies. As a leader of a Reproductive Justice organization, I understand that Black women and birthing people have the right to have children, not have children and parent the children that they do have in environments free from violence. Equitable access to choice is a reproductive health issue that Senator Cassidy does not agree with. When people with the capacity for pregnancy are denied the right to make decisions about abortion, it also becomes easier to deny pregnant and birthing people other types of decision-making rights during pregnancy and birth, harming both those who want to end a pregnancy and those who want to birth. In this fight for reproductive rights, a reproductive justice framework is necessary in order to center the needs of the most marginalized. The people hurt most by abortion restrictions are those who already face barriers to accessing health care—including women, Black, brown, and Indigenous people, low-income folks, members of the LGBTQI+ community, immigrants, young people, those living in rural communities, and people with disabilities.
As a physician, Sen. Cassidy’s statements should be alarming and represent an anomaly. Unfortunately, he just said the quiet part out loud. We have known for decades that there are powerful people in this country that do not seek to improve nor attend to reproductive justice and freedom. Cassidy’s statement aligns with those who oppose reproductive autonomy and are attempting and sometimes succeeding at defunding and restricting access to high quality care which is a clear human rights violation. Reproductive Justice leaders and organizations have been organizing at the intersection of bodily autonomy and decriminalization for decades—focusing on human rights, social justice, and the structural changes needed to be able to have children, not have children, and parent children in safe and sustainable communities. As public health leaders, organizers and advocates on the opposing side of Sen. Cassidy’s opinions, we can push past his dismissive comments and insist that our lives are important and that our deaths do not deserve to be disregarded or “corrected for”.
We deserve and demand equity! We will resist the criminalization of reproductive autonomy and justice. We will continue to learn from the analysis and work of reproductive justice organizations like the National Birth Equity Collaborative, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Women Birthing Justice, SisterSong, SisterReach, and Bold Futures to uplift the history, framework and demands of the Reproductive Justice (RJ) movement. We will continue to follow and build intersectional, holistic, justice-oriented frameworks and models of care that extend concerns about reproductive health beyond choice. We can and will build a future and present that does not bend to the will of those who subscribe to extractive white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal thinking that does not value the lives of freedom, joy, and autonomy of Black women and birthing people. We believe that Black women and birthing people are entitled to better care and we will continue to fight for this belief – we will win!