“My partner and I just had a baby 6 months ago."

Representative La'Tasha D Mayes advocated for reproductive healthcare long before she was elected to the Pennsylvania House in 2022.

She knew the numbers.

Compared to the national average recorded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), black women are 2-3 times more likely to die from a pregnancy.

“And it was real for me," said Mayes in an interview. "I was thinking about, trying not to show my fear around my partner maybe not surviving the birth of our child.”

So when given the chance to champion the topic in the legislature, Mayes jumped right into policy for the issue.

“Rep Cephas has been leading the charge for black maternal health in the house of representatives and in the general assembly for years now," said Mayes. "And so I show up, Rep Curry show up, and we become a trio.”

"an army," added Rep. Morgan Cephas.

On October 17, 2023, three women created the Black Maternal Health Caucus: Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-192), Rep. La'Tasha D Mayes (D-24), and Rep. Gina Curry (D-164).

Four months later, there are over 60 members from both political parties in the House and Senate.

“The caucus will focus on policies, legislation, and financial investment that specifically tackle this issue and take it into a different direction."

Causes of Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality is when a woman dies because of a pregnancy; whether before, during, or after birth. Research identifies multiple factors that increase the chance of maternal mortality and maternal morbidity (when a mother does not die, but has long lasting health impacts from a pregnancy).

The caucus looks at factors to inform policy. In a preventive view, raising the health experience of black woman in general means they will be healthier going into a pregnancy.

While pregnant, access to prenatal healthcare and birthing experts play significant roles in a mother's health. That access may be limited by finances, but also location.

In a 2022 March of Dimes report, Pennsylvania had 6 counties classified as maternity care deserts. 14 counties had moderate access to maternity care.

Physical and mental health after a birth are a significant factor in death rates.

"Over 51% of our birthing people are passing away during the postpartum period." said Rep. Cephas.


Roots to the Future

“92% of black maternal deaths are preventable. Black moms, moms in general, are dying unnecessarily," said Mayes.

As the caucus has worked to protect black mothers, they have worked to show other lawmakers that their efforts will in turn protect all mothers.

"If we look at the composition of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, there are 12 black women," said Mayes. "12 out of 253. And yet, we are taking leadership, stepping into leadership to win for everyone, especially on the issue of maternal health."

Both women spoke on how the past is informing their present fight.

"During reconstruction, there were no hospitals that took in black people," said Mayes. "What we see today around black maternal health is directly connected to the medical racism our healthcare system is built on. Because our healthcare system was never meant to serve, or care, or heal black people."

"It shows you yes we acknowledge the history and the past of our people but," said Cephas. "-what are we doing in this moment to ensure that we’re not forcing the next generation of those coming behind us to be having the same conversation and trying to tackle the same kind of issues.”


Making Progress

While the official caucus is only 4 months old, women in the legislature have championed black maternal health for years. In 2022, Pennsylvania opted into extending postpartum medicaid coverage to a year instead of just 60 days.

Now more recently, Governor Josh Shapiro signed SB 262 into law which made it easier to research maternal mortality in the state. There was also $2.3 million in this budget to fund research efforts, a first for the state. Shapiro has included research money again in the 2024/25 budget proposal.

"If we're not tracking it, we don't know how to address that issue," said Cephas.

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was signed in December, 2023.

"Pregnant inmates were being shackled during childbirth, or during transport." said Mayes. The bill also allows for more bonding time immediately after birth, as well as expanding visitation rights to mothers to their kids if they were the primary care taker. In 2022, advocates got doula programs established in correctional facilities in Cambridge Springs and Muncy.

As the caucus looks to the future, they are advocating for increased research funding, legitimatizing the doula industry, and using technology (like remote blood pressure trackers) to stay pro-active with health.

“When we fix maternal health for black mamas and birthing folks," said Mayes, "we fix it for all mamas and birthing folks.”