How do you protect the lives of pregnant people of color in a city where Black moms are more than eight times more likely to die in childbirth than white moms?

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams is making a start, by today introducing a package of new legislation to the City Council that aims to make giving birth in New York City safer, especially for Black women.

NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams comforts Sha-Asia Semple’s fiance Juwan Lopez in 2020. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

The package includes two new bills and a resolution. The bills aim to make pregnant people more aware of their rights, not only during pregnancy and childbirth, but also when returning to work.

 “On a federal level, we need aggressive funding and research to combat this disparity and save lives — but localities can lead the way,” Williams said.

Shocking numbers

In New York City, Black women are 8 to 12 times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts, Williams said.

The reason is rooted in structural racism. Studies have shown medical personnel in the United States often practice an unconscious racial bias by overlooking, minimizing or dismissing the health concerns of Black patients.

In 2020, two young, Black women died in childbirth under preventable circumstances in New York City hospitals, shooting the issue of Black maternal morbidity — which is not new — back into the spotlight.

Sha-Asia Semple’s father Dennis Semple at the unveiling of a memorial in her honor. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

In April, Amber Rose Isaac died giving birth to her son Elias via an emergency C-section at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx. She was 26 years old.

Three months later, Sha-Asia Semple died in childbirth at Bed-Stuy’s Woodhull Medical Center July 3, 2020, after being given an epidural for an emergency C-section. She was also 26 years old.

“The pain of Black women like Sha-Asia Washington or Amber Rose Isaac is less likely to be believed, more likely to be dismissed, and far too often ignored by providers and politicians alike,” Williams said.

He said action on the issue of maternal health in the city was decades overdue, and while the current administration had taken some steps to address the inequity, maternal mortality was still a problem — especially for Black women.

The proposed laws

The two new bills are focused on educating and enforcing the rights of pregnant individuals in New York City.

Photo: Pexels / William Fortunato

The first bill, Intro 2370, establishes a City “maternal health bill of rights” and requires that pregnant people are informed of those rights.

Pregnant people will need to be advised that they have the right to be free from discrimination throughout childbearing, and that they have access to accommodations in the workplace and paid parental leave.

“Information is essential to  body autonomy and empowering people to seek the care they deserve, and being informed of ones’ rights gives power to pregnant individuals as patients and as employees,” Williams said.

The second bill, Intro 2369, aims to address inequities that come up post-pregnancy when parents try to re-enter the workforce.

It would force employers to hold an onboarding meeting to discuss an employee’s reintegration back into the workplace after parental leave, so they are not at a disadvantage when they return.

Finally, Williams has introduced a resolution calling on Congress to pass the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021.

The federal act seeks to make significant investment in social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes, as well as investing in research on the maternal morbidity disparities.

New Yorkers react

Brooklyn-born Congresswoman Yvette Clarke — who cosponsors the Black Maternal Momnibus Act — said the legislation was “comprehensive.”

“As it stands, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of all developed nations, a crisis that puts Black birthing people especially at risk,” she said.

“By taking meaningful steps to address the disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes, we can save lives.”

Representative Yvette Clarke at an event for Sha-Asia Semple. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

Council Member Farah N. Louis said the legislation was an important step towards helping the issue. East Flatbush, which the councilmember represents, has one of the highest rates of severe maternal morbidity in the five boroughs at 479.8 per 10,000 deliveries, she said.

“Nearly 700 women die each year in the United States as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications – a higher rate of maternal mortality than any other developed country,” she said.

“This is an American tragedy.”

Photo: Pexels

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal also applauded the legislation, adding she would like to see the City move to ensure access to doulas for women at all income levels.

Diaspora Community Services CEO Carine Jocelyn said she appreciated the light being shone on Black maternal health.

“The time is now!” she said. “We can no longer wait but need to move our actions forward!”

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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