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Legislation in Virginia proposes statewide Black Maternal Health Week in April

Black Maternal Health week will be recognized annually in April, if Virginia lawmakers sign off on a proposed resolution. 

The week, held from April 11-17, is intended to raise awareness that Black women are dying from childbirth at a disproportionately higher rate. 

This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service

Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 23, which passed the Senate and awaits House approval. 

“The resolution is a next step of many in an effort to raise awareness about what is occurring in the maternal space, especially among Black women,” Aird said.

Aird began researching the state of Black maternal health with colleagues in 2018, after several high profile figures garnered national attention for the issue. 

Then in 2019, she co-sponsored a resolution to recognize the U.S. maternal and infant mortality crisis. That same year, state lawmakers established the Maternal Mortality Review Team to investigate deaths and gather statistics. Aird in 2021 declared that racism is a public health crisis. She also supported a measure that allows women enrolled in Medicaid to be reimbursed for prenatal and postpartum doula services.

“As we began to explore the birthing experiences of women here in the commonwealth, we saw an equal trend among them as well,” Aird said. “That began the journey of really trying to put policy in place that could combat this, what is a real life crisis.”

Virginia is among the top 10 U.S. states for highest maternal mortality, according to the proposed resolution.

While maternal deaths are on the rise for women of all backgrounds, the risks are even higher for Black women. The number of pregnancy-related deaths in Virginia rose from 53 to 82 between 2019-20, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Black women in the state are 1.67 times more likely to suffer from pregnancy-related deaths compared to their white counterparts. That number increases to three times morelikely at the national level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Black Mamas Matter Alliance, an Atlanta-based organization, is credited with founding Black Maternal Health Week. Efforts to create a national observance have failed, although congressional resolutions have been introduced since 2018 and several presidential proclamations made.

The Virginia General Assembly designated July as Maternal Health Awareness Month in 2020.

There are groups working throughout the state to minimize maternal risks, advocate for legislation, offer education and provide services. The Virginia Rural Health Association, Danville Maternal Health Task Force, OB-GYN Associates of Danville and Birth in Color RVA last October discussedthe state of Black maternal health in rural Virginia. 

Most of Virginia’s rural hospitals have stopped delivering babies and provide limited access to prenatal care, according to Beth O’Connor, executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association. 

“The intersection of poor outcomes for African American women in general with the lack of services in rural communities has created a crisis,” O’Connor stated in an email.

The University of Virginia held a panel discussion on Black maternal mortality last March, which featured various community members who work daily to support the cause. The university wants to “be a part of the collective that helps solve this crisis,” according to Ashley Woodard, director of Diversity Programs and Strategic Partnerships at the UVA School of Medicine.

“We must educate more people about this crisis because it will take people working at various levels (e.g. healthcare workers, politicians, community organizers, lawyers) to fix what is broken,” Woodard stated in an email. 

There were severalbills introduced this session that tackled maternal mortality. One that recently passed the House was introduced by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. House Bill 781 reestablishes the Task Force on Maternal Health Data and Quality Measures that ended on Dec. 1 last year. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.