House Health Committee reports out key bill to improve Black maternal health

HARRISBURG, June 14 – The House Health Committee today reported to the full House legislation that would ensure proper data collection on maternal morbidity as lawmakers work to reduce the growing and alarming number of maternal deaths in the state.

The bill (S.B. 262), which would add “severe maternal morbidity” to the list of reportable events within the Pennsylvania Department of Health, mirrors legislation authored by state Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Phila., in the past two legislative sessions and is a key part of efforts by Cephas and Reps. Gina H. Curry, D-Delaware, and La’Tasha D. Mayes, D-Allegheny, to reduce Black maternal mortality and improve Black maternal health in Pennsylvania. 

The lawmakers said the recent death of Olympic track and field champion Tori Bowie shines a bright light on the need to collect such data. An autopsy report released this week from the Orange County (Florida) Medical Examiner's Office listed natural causes for her death, but Bowie, 32, died of eclampsia or respiratory distress while in labor. She was eight months pregnant.

“Tori Bowie’s tragic death shows that a person’s socioeconomic situation does not matter in the maternal mortality crisis plaguing our nation, especially for Black women,” Curry said. “When I think about Tori, her birthing journey should not have ended that way. Eclampsia, if it is caught early as preeclampsia, can be treated. It’s time to take all steps necessary to ensure that birthing people have the research, resources and support behind them as they move through their birthing journey.”  

The realities for women in this country are grave, the legislators said. Among resource-rich nations, the United States is the least-safest country to have a baby. Furthermore, Pennsylvania falls in the bottom half of the nation for maternal mortality rates – ranking 26th in the country. Nearly 19 out of 100,000 live births in Pennsylvania result in the death of the mother. In 2021, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births. And Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

In April the House Majority Policy Committee held a public hearing during Black Maternal Health Week, which offered the public a chance to deepen the conversations about Black maternal mortality and Black maternal health in Pennsylvania. Curry, Cephas and Mayes said testimony from that hearing gave a roadmap the legislature could take to eliminate disparities in care for Black mothers and, in effect, improve care for all mothers.

“The first step in combating maternal morbidity and mortality is proper data collection,” Cephas said. “Accurate and regular tracking is essential for comprehensive research on this complex medical issue. We need to fully understand the outcomes of birthing people as we work to improve maternal care and maternal health outcomes. I am delighted to see this legislation moving closer to the governor’s desk to become law.”

Mayes said proper reporting will also help determine the “deserts” for maternal care. She said the April public hearing revealed how systemic racism and gender-based bias plays a major role in Black maternal mortality. 

“Better tracking and reporting will ensure that Black mamas and birthing individuals are heard,” Mayes said. “We know that Pennsylvania needs more people in the medical and perinatal field who look like the people they are working alongside to deliver healthy babies and eliminate birth outcome disparities. This data can help us identify the areas where we need more professionals, such as doulas, who can provide emotional, informational and physical support before, during and after childbirth.”

The bill now moves to the full House for a vote, which could come as early as next week. If the House approves the bill without amendment, it will go directly to Gov. Josh Shapiro for his signature.

Curry, Cephas and Mayes are all members of the Women’s Health Caucus and Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, which have teamed up to address the issue of Black maternal mortality in the state.