Photo by Igordoon Primus on Unsplash
The focus at the Capitol on Tuesday morning was on child birth, pregnant women and babies, beginning with a news conference led by Democrats that overlapped with the Senate health committee public hearing run by Republicans.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) unveiled the Birth Equity Act made up of six bills focused on repairing Wisconsin’s massive racial disparities in health care, particularly for Black pregnant women, new mothers and babies.
The bills would provide home wellness visits shortly after delivery, screen for maternal mental health risks, make pregnancy a qualifying event for employer-sponsored health plans, remove the sales tax on breastfeeding supplies and expand access to dental care for pregnant women who receive BadgerCare.
“We owe it to moms and babies of color to pass legislation that makes it abundantly clear: Their lives are valuable and worthy,” said Katrina Morrison, health equity director for the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, advocating for the Birth Equity Act. “They deserve healthy pregnancies. They deserve healthy births. And most of all, they deserve to live.”
“These are real people and real lives that we’re talking about,” Morrison continued. “Every Black woman in this room is five times more likely to die in childbirth or pregnancy related complications, simply because of what the reality is to be Black in this state, and because of the systems and structures that uphold racism in our state. That is an unacceptable reality that we should all be ashamed of and all be working towards a change.”
Simultaneously in another room across the Capitol, Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) and Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) spoke at a public hearing championing their bills that seek to add additional restrictions and obstacles to receiving an abortion in the state, focusing on the abortion pill and abortions sought because of the gender or health of the fetus.
Some of the same language and arguments were made there, albeit for very different policies.
“This kind of predjudice will not be tolerated,” said Testin, discussing his bill prohibiting a list of selective abortions. “Whether it be their sex, race, national origin, ancestry, or a diagnosis or potential diagnosis of Down syndrome or another congenital disability, the bill will require physicians to make this known to the woman on which an abortion is to be performed” that such an abortion is not permitted.
Republicans argued they were championing women’s rights: “In this case, a woman has the right to know that if she has a change of heart after the first pill, she may be able to continue her pregnancy and choose life for her baby,” said Kapenga, in a theme echoed by several of the pro-life speakers at the hearing. His bill would require “informed consent” regarding an abortion-inducing drugs. It also adds additional reporting requirements for abortions.
“Many people don’t realize that chemical abortions — they’re often referred to as the abortion pill on the street, a lot of people hear that term — is prescribed during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and it’s actually a series of two different pills, which are typically taken a few days apart,” Kapenga said. (The idea of reversing an abortion between the two pill regimen has been spread, primarily on the internet, even though many doctors say it is not backed by any science.)
There’s no reason that a baby’s lifespan should be decreased by the time that they’re born simply because of their zip code or the color of their skin or their economic status. That has to stop.
– Sen. LaTonya Johnson
The irony of the two events taking place at the same time was not lost on Sara Finger, founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.
“For those advancing this so-called ‘time for life agenda,’ they need to start valuing the life of the moms and babies in this state,” says Finger, asked about the two legislative events after they concluded. “If you want to continue to wear that pro-life badge on your sleeve, stop playing political games and start to advance positive, evidence-based bills that help women and children.
Babies are dying
In introducing the Birth Equity Act package, Stubbs said she feels it is her duty as a Black mother, pastor, legislator and community activist to push hard to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women, as well as other women of color, who also experience higher rates of negative health and pregnancy outcomes.
“Let’s be very clear today on what I’m saying — our mothers and our babies deserve to live,” said Stubbs at the news conference. “I believe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when he said, and I quote, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.’”
Stubbs stepped up to co-chair a racial justice task force with Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) in 2020 despite the inauspicious revelation that it was a cover for Republican legislative inaction. Now she plans to push her GOP colleagues to “prioritize Black maternal and child health and dedicate themselves to ending the public health crisis, which is systemic racism.”
“I know it is my duty to make our Black children and our mothers’ maternal health a priority for this Legislature,” said Stubbs. “The future of countless Black babies in Wisconsin is at risk. If we want to make Wisconsin a safe and affordable place to start a family tomorrow, we must start by addressing these disparities today.”
Johnson, who represents one of the most impoverished zip codes in Wisconsin in her North Side Milwaukee district, said the bills are personal for her as well.
“Two weeks after I graduated from college in Nashville, Tennessee, my water broke early. I was pregnant. I went to the hospital expecting to be sent home that night, but instead I stayed in the hospital for two weeks while they tried to hold off my delivery for as long as absolutely possible.”
She gave birth to her daughter, who weighed less than four pounds, at 32 weeks. The baby required additional care in a neonatal ward at the hospital.
“I know what it’s like to go home without your baby — to worry about your child and to pray as hard as you possibly can just for that baby to be able to make it,” said Johnson.
Making the situation even worse, while her baby was in neonatal intensive care, she had to return to work two days after giving birth.
“I had to pay the rent, and keep the lights on and make sure that my baby had a safe place to come home to,” Johnson continued. “And that’s not different from so many of our communities of color who are struggling just to make ends meet … We all know that disrupting infant mortality and health disparities in Wisconsin needs to be not only a statewide priority, but it needs to be prioritized, especially in our highly impoverished neighborhood.”
Infant mortality rates are four deaths for every 1,000 live births for white women, and 14 deaths for every 1,000 live births for African American women. But in the high-poverty 53206 zip code in her district, she said the statistic is 29 deaths for every 1,000 live births.
“So it is time, it is beyond time, that we make these infant mortality disparities non-existent,” said Johnson. “There’s no reason that a baby’s lifespan should be decreased by the time that they’re born simply because of their zip code or the color of their skin or their economic status. That has to stop.”
Racism, not just race
The package of bills that make up the Birth Equity Act were designed by women of color, including health experts and advocates. One of them was Lisa Peyton-Caire, the CEO and president of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, based in Dane County.
She highlighted statistics that are often repeated, and yet rarely acted upon in the Legislature: Wisconsin leads the nation in health disparities for Black women and babies. Wisconsin ranks first in the nation for Black infant mortality. Black mothers are five times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than their white counterparts here. And Black babies, said Peyton-Caire, are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to white mothers.
She emphasized that the Birth Equity Act is also intended to help other women of color as well as low-income families across the state, noting they are all hurt by the same root causes — and that the deaths and health complications are “the very preventable tragedy” of racial disparities, particularly surrounding birth.
“Black women in Wisconsin face a lower life expectancy than our peers, and a widening life expectancy gap in comparison to our white peers, making Wisconsin the only state among 50 where this trend is emerging,” said Peyton-Caire. “Black women deserve better.”
Black moms and babies are not just dying because of their race, agreed Tamara Thompson, cofounder of Maroon Calabash, a nonprofit organization of Black doulas in Milwaukee.
“I want to be really, really clear about what we’re here to talk about,” said Thompson, addressing reporters while cradling her one-month-old daughter. “It’s racism, not just race, that’s killing Black and Indigenous people of color, moms and babies. The reality is that Wisconsin’s disparities and inequities and maternal and child health are rooted in systems that are underpinned by racism and bias.”
That system, said Thompson, includes such factors as inadequate housing, environmental injustice, food insecurity, violence, trauma and mental health issues. Unlike the BEA bills — sponsored by Black legislators with help from women of color in the health care field — most policies that affect them are designed without their input.
Even worse — the most serious problems facing Black women and children have rarely been acted upon, particularly in Wisconsin, as the crisis has mounted.
Peyton-Caire said, “In fact, the condition of black maternal and child health in Wisconsin right now is best described as a state of emergency, one that has been met with too little urgency or effective solutions, or action despite the best efforts of organizations and advocates like many of us gathered here today.”
Black women in Wisconsin face a lower life expectancy than our peers, and a widening life expectancy gap in comparison to our white peers, making Wisconsin the only state among 50 where this trend is emerging. Black women deserve better.
– Lisa Peyton-Caire
That’s what drives Sen. Johnson: “Those statistics are staggering. And it’s no wonder we hold the title as being one of the worst places for infant mortality in the nation among African-American babies. When we hear statistics like this, the magnitude of these rates is a reflection of a broader socio-economic condition that affects maternal and child health, including access to high quality health care, poverty and blatant racism.”
Will there be action?
Johnson, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee, was furious during the crafting of the 2021 – ‘23 biennial budget when Republicans removed Gov. Tony Evers’ Healthy Women Healthy Babies initiative along with the $8 million he allocated to fund it. She says that would have been an opportunity to begin addressing health care inequalities.
“As communities of color are struggling with enough disparities in terms of health disparities, economic disparities, there is absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t be doing everything possible as a state to make sure that every child born in this state, and I do mean every child, has the opportunity to reach their first birthday,” said Johnson. “By continuing to not put money and funding where the resources are most needed, ensures that not only will we continue to see these rates, but they will only continue to grow. And that’s unacceptable.”
Finger, of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, says she did see a Republican staffer attending a briefing on the bill. And she points to Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) picking up an item originally included in Evers’ budget — but removed by her fellow Joint Finance Republicans — to extend Medicaid postpartum benefits for women from the current 60 days to 12 months — a measure backed by the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians and the Wisconsin Chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, among others.
From Finger’s point of view, proof of Republicans’ dedication to the life and health of mothers and their babies will be whether they decide to move forward with consideration of the Birth Equity Act, which according to its authors has been years in the making. Past bills with similar goals have been ignored, she notes, not even allowed a public hearing or committee vote. She says she’ll be watching the cosponsorship lists on the bills to see if any Republicans sign on to any of them.
Whether the bills advance at all is up to Republicans who control the Legislature and its committees.
Bipartisanship has been particularly scarce on legislation surrounding pregnancies, birth and health care for low-income Wisconsinites. The bills getting a public hearing in the Senate’s health committee Tuesday primarily focused on abortion. Speakers testifying were from pro-life groups, backing the bills or asking for some additional restrictive language.
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After Kapenga spoke in favor of his bill on adding restrictions to medical abortions, Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) had a question for him. He wanted to know if this was the same bill that Evers had vetoed last session. It’s the same one, Kapenga answered.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) had a follow-up question: “Was there any attempt to reach out to the administration to try and work with them on something that might be signed? Or is it just a ‘here we go again’ bill?”
Responded Kapenga: “It’s a here we go again.”
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