Wichita group seeks to address the rising number of maternal deaths

The number of women dying from pregnancy or childbirth has seen an incline in recent years.
Published: Mar. 18, 2023 at 10:01 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The number of women dying from pregnancy or childbirth has increased in recent years.

New data from the CDC recorded about 1,200 deaths in 2021, an increase of nearly 40 percent from 2020 when the number was about 860. Maternal mortality is having a more pronounced impact on Black women. The CDC data found the rate for Black women is 2.6 times that for white women.

It’s a rate that also rose with age, increasing significantly for those ages 40 and over.

Maternal mortality numbers saw a significant increase in 2021.(CDC)

“It has been an honor to help people have the resources, knowledge, and background they need to have a better birth experience,” said Kansas Birth Justice Society Executive Director Sapphire Garcia-Lies. “To be able to come out of that experience healthy, alive and thriving instead of pass away.”

It’s a trend that groups like the Kansas Birth Justice Society are working to reverse. They focus their services and advocacy on supporting mothers of color.

It’s a travesty, and most of these deaths are preventable. We know that over 90 percent of the maternal deaths in Kansas have been identified as preventable," said Garcia-Lies. "We knew that COVID was going to compound the issues that we already had in our state, but I think that everybody is just really aghast and disappointed to see how far these numbers have climbed up. We have to get to work fixing this.”

It’s something they’ve seen mirrored in Kansas.

Kansas Birth Justice Action President Melody McCray-Miller said, "These numbers of horrific across the nation, so it’s not just an issue for the state of Kansas. However, the state of Kansas happens to have the highest ratio of Black maternal deaths."

Based on available national data, a report done by America’s Health Rankings found that Black women in Kansas had a maternal rate of 105 for 100,000 births. The national average is 52.

Saturday, volunteers from a local church were helping to sort donated baby clothing Kansas Birth Justice Society will give out. They aim to provide continuity of care through the clothing, pantry, workshops and doulas.

"The doulas actually meet with the family prenatally, follow them through the birth, is there when the baby is born and follow up postpartum, so they are that continuum of care," said Garcia-Lies.

Garcia-Lies and McCray-Miller said maternal mortality is connected to infant mortality, so supporting the mother helps the child’s health.

"Low birth weight, early birth weight, NICU emission, being born and not being healthy because you’re early. That’s preventable largely. We know that the supportive work that we do is helping lower that number,” Garcia-Lies said.

Garcia-Lies said COVID-19 is one factor in the rise in maternal mortality in recent years. It left people secluded and not having the support they would typically have, impacting communities of color.

Garcia-Lies said what’s having a bigger impact is race and racism, including getting their needs addressed in healthcare settings.

"The largest barrier is being heard, being listened to and being respected. One of the things that we really prepare people for in our workshops and in the work that we do is to advocate strongly and to be able to navigate systems that we know are not serving us well right now," said Garcia-Lies.

McCray-Miller said, “We’re not about the business of making this issue only a racial issue, but we are about the business of being truthful and honest and open to say that race is a problem, structural racism does exist.”

The CDC has launched a campaign called “Hear Her,” encouraging healthcare professionals to listen to women during and after their pregnancy. It also includes detailing warning signs of maternal health issues, when to seek care and additional support for chronic health issues.

Kansas Birth Justice Society is also working on policy changes they said are needed to address maternal mortality.

“Not only focus on mothers of color, but mothers who are in rural areas have the same likelihood and maternal death ratios that mothers of color in what’s called an urban area,” said McCray-Miller.

They are supporting a bill in the Kansas Legislature this year that would give a better analysis of the maternal mortality data in the state, create a review committee made of people impacting or working on this issue and promote continuity of care.

They also said Medicaid expansion is needed.

"We know that expanding Medicaid would be able to loop in and group in and be able to capture a whole other set of individuals and families that need that healthcare," said McCray-Miller.

Garcia-Lies said at the base of what they’re doing is creating a village to support mother and child.

She said, “We were never meant to parent alone. We were always meant to parent without a village of support around us, and that is the work we’re” replicating here is bringing that support to families because every baby should be allowed and able to reach that first birthday alive and healthy, and so should the mother.”