Amidst the escalating war on women’s reproductive rights, which recently intensified with the leak of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion to overturn Roe vs. Wade, on May 19 in an interview with Politico at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy M.D. made racist statements on Louisiana’s maternal mortality crisis.
When asked about Louisiana’s high maternal mortality rates, Cassidy said, “About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear.” He continued, “I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.”
Cassidy essentially said that Louisiana’s maternal mortality crisis is not as bad as it seems because the state has a high Black population. Implied is the idea that Black women’s lives matter less than those of white women. That Cassidy attempted to minimize the horror of women dying in childbirth at all reveals — that like other “pro-life” politicians — he blatantly disregards women’s health and autonomy. Not only is Cassidy a politician betraying his responsibility to serve all his constituents, including women and Black people, he is also a medical doctor breaking his commitment to people’s lives in favor of furthering his conservative political agenda.
According to the Louisiana Department of Health, Louisiana’s maternal mortality rate exceeds the national average and ranks 47th out of 48 states. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, the United States already has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed country. In fact, maternal mortality has increased steadily over the past three decades. Nationally, three Black mothers die for every white mother who dies in childbirth — in Louisiana that ratio is four to one. Infant mortality is also higher among Black people in Louisiana, with Black infants two and a half times as likely to die as their white counterparts.
Cassidy’s words, “for whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality,” make it sound like this increased likelihood of dying in childbirth is some kind of a mystery. In reality, it is a result of systemic racism. As a medical doctor, Cassidy should be aware of the dirty history of racism and eugenics in his field especially. U.S. scientists, physicians, and slaveowners have long propagated the idea that Black and white people are essentially biologically different — and this myth has been used to justify discrimination and abuse since this country’s conception. Black people’s pain is consistently underestimated by medical professionals and treated with less urgency than that of white patients. Both medical students and licensed physicians were found to agree with statements like, “Blacks age more slowly than whites,” and “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites.” Notions of biological difference mean Black mothers are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care and have issues with their pregnancies addressed early, exacerbating maternal mortality.
This issue is also intrinsically tied to income and class, as affluent women have better access to healthcare during their pregnancy, are less likely to have to work a job that negatively impacts their health during pregnancy, are less prone to food insecurity, and have fewer social and environmental stressors impacting their health. As a result of centuries of racism, Black people in Louisiana score on average more than 2 points lower than white Louisianans on the Human Development Index, which combines data on health, education and income. In 2016, Black Louisianans were 2.5 times more likely to live below the poverty line than their white counterparts. Higher poverty and the impact of racism underlie the higher rates of maternal mortality among Black women in Louisiana.
Cassidy said he is “unapologetically pro-life” in the name of “distinct civil rights, human rights,” yet, during his political career he has voted directly against getting people the basic resources they need to live a decent life. Cassidy has opposed measures to advance labor rights, public health, welfare and taxing the rich, all of which help uplift people out of poverty. He has repeatedly voted against maternal care, funding for Planned Parenthood, Medicare and Medicaid expansion and public health funding. It is hypocritical of Cassidy to spout empty rhetoric about human rights while his actions keep people in poverty and without healthcare.
As the attack on abortion rights surges, forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term can only exacerbate the maternal mortality crisis. Cassidy said, “If we’re using abortion to limit maternal deaths, that’s kind of an odd way to approach the problem.” This statement reflects a complete lack of awareness of the struggles of working-class women, who are likely to face difficult work conditions, medical racism, social stress and food insecurity during their pregnancies, among other factors. Maternal mortality rates and abortion bans are unequivocally linked because abortion bans result in women resorting to unsafe measures to terminate their pregnancies or carrying unwanted pregnancies to term.
According to data from the CDC, when states restricted abortion based on gestational limits, maternal mortality increased 38%, and when states reduced their Planned Parenthood clinics by just 20%, maternal mortality increased 8%. In fact, states that are certain or likely to ban abortion following Roe vs. Wade’s repeal have 28% more counties classified as “maternity care deserts” than states unlikely to ban abortion. A UCSF study found that women who were denied abortions and gave birth reported significantly more life-threatening health conditions such as eclampsia, postpartum hemorrhaging, migraines, persistent joint pain and death. In general, a safe abortion provided by a medical professional is much less dangerous than carrying a pregnancy to term.
Reproductive justice is not just the right to have or not have a baby. It is the right to survive pregnancy and birth, to have adequate healthcare, and to raise that child decently. Reproductive justice includes access to abortion, but also to guaranteed housing, childcare, healthcare, and living wages — none of which can be provided by a for-profit capitalist system. People who are Black and poor or of other oppressed nationalities are impacted the most by the war on reproductive rights. In fighting for women’s rights, socialists must understand the racist and anti-poor character of abortion bans and advocate for the right of all people to bodily autonomy and a dignified life.