D.C. has a severe problem when it comes to maternal health. It leads the nation with the highest rate of women who die of pregnancy-related causes, and while infant mortality rates are decreasing, the numbers remain considerably high in Ward 8 where access to prenatal care and delivery services are nearly non-existent.
The urgency of the problem prompted Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen to author a bill last year to establish the D.C. Maternal Mortality Review Committee to study the problem of maternal and infant mortality, collect data, determine the causes and recommend policies to end what is described as a “maternal health crisis.”
According to America’s Health Ranking’s 2018 analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 36 women die for every 100,000 live births in the District, compared to 20.7 such deaths nationally. This data treats the District as a state, and only four states have worse rates. Additionally, according to the 2018 D.C. Perinatal Health and Infant Mortality Report, about half of Black women and more than one in three Hispanic women are not entering prenatal care until their second or third trimester or not receiving care at all.
To make matters worse, in August 2017, United Medical Center (UMC), the only hospital located east of the Anacostia River, where a disproportionately high number of poor Black women and girls reside, was ordered by the D.C. Department of Health to suspend services at its obstetrics unit for 90 days. Soon after, the UMC board voted not to reopen the unit, leaving Wards 7 and 8 mothers with having to choose places elsewhere and farther away to receive prenatal care and to deliver their babies. To this day, the unit remains closed.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, who last year adopted an infant baby girl, is laser-focused on the maternal health problems that beset her largest constituency: women. Next week, she will host the National Maternal and Infant Health Summit at the Washington Convention Center, focusing on best infant and maternal health practices. Participants plan to also develop a national agenda that addresses the disproportionally high rates of maternal mortality experienced by people of color in Washington, D.C., and across the nation.
Bowser’s efforts to improve maternal and infant health are commendable. She is attempting to put women in touch with every available resource in the District to ensure healthy maternal outcomes. But she is clear. Everyone has a role to play.
With the uptick in youth homicides and suicides, a greater need for information and services continues beyond birth.