Amid The National Maternal Mortality Crisis, Washington State Passes Essential Legislation

Open Arms boldly disrupts oppression by providing birth support to families otherwise left vulnerable in a biased and overburdened health system. Maternal and infant health outcomes in the United States have always lagged far behind other nations, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, new data released by the National Center for Health Statistics shows just how deadly an impact it has had. According to the report, maternal deaths in the United States rose 14 percent in 2020, up from 20.1 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019 to 23.8 deaths in 2020. Meanwhile, countries like Norway have just two deaths per 100,000 live births.

Like with the pandemic itself, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are disproportionately affected. Black women consisted of one-third of all the maternal deaths in 2020 – 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births – and Latinx women also experienced a sharp increase. While our local and national leaders have known about this decades-long crisis, the investments needed to improve outcomes for birthing people have not been made, such as the Momnibus Act of 2021.

Washington State is in many ways a leader for maternal and infant health in the country, but inequities persist. American Indian Alaskan Native (AIAN) and Black infants have at least twice the mortality rate of white non-Hispanic infants. AIAN infants are 81 percent more likely to be preterm than white non-Hispanic infants, and Black and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander infants are approximately 50 percent more likely to be preterm than white non-Hispanic infants. 8 percent of AIAN infants and 9.4 percent of Black infants are low birth weight compared to 5.7 percent of white non-Hispanics.[i]

For Washington State to continue to close the health outcome gaps for our communities, we must make the public investments needed to do so. This is why we are continuing our longstanding commitment to advocating for lasting change by endorsing several bills in the State legislature in the categories of Maternal Health, Infant Mental Health, Early Childhood & Early Learning, Equitable Access to Care, and Justice.

Open Arms is a trusted resource for families in our community, and this directly impacts our ability to advocate in the legislature for progressive policies to sustain our mission. Our lobbyist, Amber Ulvenes, says “Open Arms Perinatal Services is a name that is already well-regarded by those in the advocacy world and among many Puget Sound-area legislators, so when we come in to talk, they are ready to listen. Family health outcomes, community satisfaction, and reputation are things that speak for themselves. Advocacy is a fertile space for Open Arms to make change, and we are just getting started.”

Now that the state legislative session has ended, our legislative priorities are now on the governor’s desk after winning broad support thanks to our partners in advocacy and our efforts. These bills include SB-5765, which would allow Licensed Midwives to prescribe birth control, and HB-1881, which will create a new professional credential for birth doulas with the Department of Health, increasing access by publicly reimbursing community-based doula work. Introduced by our colleagues at WestSide Baby and the Washington Diaper Bank Coalition, SB-5838 supports All Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) households with children under the age of three with a potential $125 per month cash grant increase to help pay for diapers.

It’s unacceptable for the United States to continue to have the highest maternal death rate of any developed nation alongside its astronomical rate of childhood poverty, and the stark disparities for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx birthing people remain just one outcome of the country’s structural racism. All new mothers and parents have the right to feel safe during pregnancy and birth, and Open Arms is actively working to advance these rights. With the investments outlined in our Legislative Agenda for 2022, Washington State can adequately support the families who need it most to ensure a thriving future for all Washingtonians.

[i] Source: CBODP Report on Program Outcomes prepared by the Center for Community Health and Evaluation. Based on CBODP Latina and Somali client sample from 2008 – 2016.