Health & Social Policy

Let’s celebrate Mother’s Day by addressing Texas’ maternal mortality crisis

Photo: Dave Herholz

On Mother’s Day this year, my brother and I will likely celebrate the way we usually do. We will each buy our respective cards (or he’ll sign his name to the one I bought two weeks ago), take her out to brunch, and listen to her recount the stories of how we came into the world, making her a mother. Later she’ll look at us and hint strongly about how much she’s looking forward to grandmother-hood, even though we’re both single and in school.

The day I was born, my mom was checked into a hospital in southern California, patiently waiting for the epidural, when she heard a shrieking from the adjacent room. When a nurse arrived with ice chips, my mother was informed that the shrieking was coming from an unwed teenage girl, who had either declined, or not been offered the same numbing treatment my mom was waiting on for her own delivery. I don’t know what happened to that girl.

My mom got her shot and I arrived several hours later. Childbirth is by turns beautiful, painful, messy, and something the Texas Legislature is ostensibly interested in. It can also be fatal.

A 2016 report in the medical journal “Obstetrics and Gynecology” revealed that maternal mortality rates in Texas increased from 18.6 per 100,000 births in 2010 to 35.8 in 2014. Maternal mortality is decreasing worldwide, but the opposite trend is happening in every U.S. state except California — and it’s especially pronounced in Texas. The report found that the number of women dying within one year of giving birth in the Lone Star State had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014, and that African American women were disproportionately affected, accounting for 28.8 percent of maternal deaths while comprising 11.4 percent of the state’s population.

This report made national and international headlines last year, then quickly dropped off the radar. It was not addressed in the governor’s State of the State address, where he laid out his agenda, nor was it listed as one of the lieutenant governor’s 25 priorities, or mentioned by Speaker Joe Straus.

Despite the lack of media coverage during the session, on April 27 the Texas Senate managed to pass SB 1929, a bill expanding and extending the role of the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force (MMMTF). This bipartisan bill was authored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, and co-authored by Sen. Royce West, and seeks to study why more Texan women are dying from childbirth, develop solutions, and extend the life of the MMMTF by an additional four years (it was due to sunset on September 1, 2019).

At this point, the ball in the court of the Texas House. HB 3966, the lower chamber’s version of the bill, was referred to the Public Health Committee on April 3. The House can signal its support for Texas women this Mother’s Day by passing that legislation.

If the MMMTF is extended through 2023 and manages to conduct a sound statistical analysis of maternal mortality cases in Texas, the Texas Legislature can continue to support Texas moms by making this data available to researchers and the public. The Department of State Health Services is currently keeping this information secret, based on a 2011 opinion by former attorney general, and now Gov. Greg Abbott that stated “names, locations and cause of death of every mortality” reported to the department’s Vital Statistics division should be kept secret to prevent fraud. The Dallas Morning News made a request to view these records through the Texas Public Information Act, but that request was denied.

Years down the road, when I’m brunching with my mom on Mother’s Day, I may have children of my own. If the Texas Legislature does not take action and begin addressing rising maternal mortality, I won’t be having them in Texas.

This column was originally published on Trib Talk, a publication of the Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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