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Suffolk legislature approves forming a maternal mortality task force

Activist Shanequa Levin, in Huntington on June 3.

Activist Shanequa Levin, in Huntington on June 3. Credit: James Carbone

The Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday night approved the formation of a maternal mortality task force to examine why so many women, especially Black women, die from pregnancy, childbirth and labor complications.

The 15-person task force will recommend ways to reduce deaths and disparities for women of color as Long Island’s maternal death rate exceeds the national average and Black women in New York are three times more likely to die. The legislation passed unanimously.

"The terrible reality is the majority of deaths of African-American women are preventable," said Hughette Clarke, a member of the Women's Diversity Network. "This is a disgrace and must change."

The United States ranks 46th in the world for maternal mortality and had rates more than double in three decades, data shows. About 700 U.S. women die annually from pregnancy or delivery complications, and more than 50,000 suffer potentially life-threatening complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

On Long Island, 18 women died from pregnancy and labor complications between 2014 and 2016, according to the most recent state data available. That’s more deaths than in the mid-Hudson region, which includes Westchester, which had nearly the same number of births but only eight women died.

Long Island’s maternal mortality rate is 20 per 100,000 live births, just below the state average of 20.4 but above the national average of 17.3.

Nassau’s rate is 25.6 and Suffolk’s is 14.9.

The death rate is even worse for Black women, regardless of their income or education level, researchers said.

In New York State, the Black maternal mortality rate was 51.6 per 100,000 live births, compared to 15.9 for white women for 2014 to 2016, according to the most recently available state data. In New York City, Black women are 12 times more likely to die than white women.

Legis. Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon) said he proposed the task force after seeing the mortality and morbidity statistics, which "brought home" the experiences of friends and family who had labor complications.

"There are real people behind these numbers," Richberg said.

Black women are more likely to suffer conditions that lead to maternal mortality and morbidity, including worse health care access and chronic health conditions exacerbated by "toxic stress" from historical racism, said Martine Hackett, a Hofstra University professor who researches maternal and infant mortality.

They are also more likely to face medical racism, including the false belief that people of different races have biological differences and that Black women experience less pain, Hackett said.

"I hear from Black women all the time they’ve experienced racism, disrespect, implicit bias and microaggression from their doctors," said Shanequa Levin, founder of the Women’s Diversity Network, which launched its own infant and maternal mortality task force earlier this year. "They say no one listens to them or believes them when they say something is wrong."

Long Island’s own history plays a role in the disparities, too, Hackett said.

"Racial residential segregation is a key factor" in disparate health outcomes, "which is why I would argue you see this in particular in a place like Long Island," Hackett said.

Advocates said outcomes could be improved by increasing birth preparedness, training more medical workers on implicit bias, enhancing postpartum care, adding more community health workers and improving access to doulas and transportation options to medical appointments, especially on the East End.

New York State launched its own maternal mortality task force in 2018. It recommended increasing funding for implicit bias training at hospitals and midwives.

The Suffolk task force, if passed, would be composed of health officials, medical practitioners, advocates, a midwife and a doula. It would hold two listening sessions a year and issue recommendations every two years.

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