This Juneteenth, an Urgent Call for Black Maternal Health Solutions

Without reproductive justice, we continue to live only partially liberated lives. Here's how Congress and the White House can act.

Photo of Black woman holding her pregnant belly
One way to improve Black maternal health is to extend Medicaid postpartum coverage beyond the typical 60 days to at least one year postpartum. Shutterstock

Juneteenth serves as a day of remembrance and bittersweet joy for Black Americans as we observe a sacred day: when the news of emancipation reached enslaved Black people in communities across Texas. While we gather to commemorate this “day of freedom,” millions of us know that without reproductive justice, we continue to live only partially liberated lives.

For Black women, in particular, our sexual and reproductive health has always been tied to systemic oppression. The ongoing maternal health crisis, which disproportionately impacts Black women, is the legacy of hundreds of years of state-sanctioned reproductive oppression. The fact that Black women are two to three times more likely than white women to die during childbirth or due to pregnancy-related complications is proof that the United States requires a more humane and just approach to reproductive justice.

When we were enslaved, our bodies, our fertility, and our children were used to grow the wealth of this country. The birth of Black babies in the United States was only beneficial when Black children could expand capitalism in this country. Once slavery was abolished, and Juneteenth “celebrations” began, our government turned its attention to limiting those births; 156 years later, as many of us struggle to access health insurance, contraception, abortion, and respectful maternity care, we must take this day of remembrance to reimagine what our lives, and our children’s lives, would be like if we had reproductive justice.

Mothers of the movement, including Loretta Ross, describe reproductive justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, the right to have children or not have children, and the right to parent those children in safe and sustainable communities. Black women across the country experience a higher rate of poor health outcomes due to the history of racism in this country. Racism permeates every aspect of U.S. society, from housing to education, and is woven into the criminal justice and health-care systems. This is the legacy of a system designed to see Black women fail. The rebuttal to hundreds of years of reproductive oppression is reproductive justice.

How do we continue to push for reproductive justice? The National Birth Equity Collaborative is a Black woman-led advocacy organization that creates solutions to optimize maternal health for Black women across the country and the globe. This Juneteenth, we call on leaders of this country to adopt three concrete solutions aimed at improving maternal health.

Pass the Momnibus Act

We call on Congress to pass the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, led by Reps. Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, and Sen. Cory Booker. The Momnibus is a set of 12 bills designed to comprehensively address the ongoing Black maternal health crisis and uphold many of the tenets of reproductive justice.

We are generations from the first Juneteenth celebrations, but due to the legacy of systemic racism in this country, Black women do not have the same opportunities as white women to thrive. The Momnibus is designed to fill gaps in our society by addressing many of the social factors that lead to poor maternal health outcomes for Black women, including discrimination in the health-care system, climate change and environmental risk factors, and insufficient access to doulas and midwives who provide patient-centered care that is holistic in nature.

Extend postpartum care

We ask for Congressional members to mandate an extension of Medicaid postpartum coverage beyond the typical 60 days to at least one year postpartum.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.7 percent of maternal deaths occur between 43 days and one year postpartum. Medicaid finances almost half of all births in the country, and Black women are chronically underinsured due to occupational segregation. That makes access to health insurance a critical component in addressing the ongoing maternal health crisis. Further, clinical guidelines recommend that postpartum care should be an ongoing process.

Currently, there are legislative provisions that call for states to opt into Medicaid extension programs, but this leaves many Black women vulnerable to the whims of state legislatures that have long been hostile to Black women’s health outcomes. At the federal level, policymakers must ensure that all women have continuous access to health care, no matter their ZIP code.

Prioritize sexual and reproductive health

We call on the Biden-Harris administration to keep their campaign promises to prioritize the health of Black women across the country by establishing the Office of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Well-being within the White House.

The White House should prioritize sexual and reproductive health. Creating such an office would allow for coordination across the many offices and agencies currently tasked with reproductive health and well-being, rather than the siloed efforts that currently exist. The lack of coordination across the federal government on issues of sexual health and well-being is a disservice to

Black communities across the country that have historically been barred from accessing the health-care services we need. There is broad cross-sector support for the development of the office, including support in both chambers of Congress and from over 150 different organizations that represent the maternal and child health field and the reproductive justice movement.

This Juneteenth, as we remember our Black Independence Day, we must continue to advocate for reproductive justice so that more Black mamas and babies can experience the fullness of liberation.