women's health

Lawmakers, activists push legislation to address discrimination in healthcare

Advocates in the National Organization for Women want policies to address and eradicate the racial discrimination that leaves women of color without proper medical treatment.

They are calling on lawmakers to listen to their concerns and draft legislation that will further protect women in and out of the doctor’s office.

At a recent racial justice summit in the House, the National Organization for Women (NOW), joined other civil rights activist groups to discuss the intersections of racism, violence, and economic inequality, and how those issues contribute to the denial of medical treatment for some women.

“We know that the disparities in healthcare are rooted simply in structural racism,” said Dariely Rodriguez, the director for the Economic Justice Project, during the first panel at the event’s discussion on reproductive health.

“As litigators, it’s very important to us to make it clear to the courts how black women are facing these barriers and what they have to overcome in order to access adequate care,” Rodriguez said.

At the Economic Justice Project, Rodriguez has been working to ensure local courts and governments are “challenged” for their violations of healthcare rights for women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities like imposing strict abortion laws and the Trump Administration’s reversal of healthcare protections.

“Those attacks, obviously, disproportionately impact low-income women of color,” Rodriguez said.

In 2019, nine states passed strict abortion laws in efforts to criminalize abortion. Some were passed with specific conditions that restricted women from getting an abortion in all circumstances, including cases of rape or incest.

Other hurdles for abortions in different states also come in the form of abortion clinic closures and the increase in price for abortion, said Pilar Whitaker, counsel for the Economic Justice Project.

“The debate is framed as ‘impacting all women’ but really, those types of laws and actions really have a greater impact on poor women. And when you break that down, women of color,” Whitaker said. “Wealthy women, primarily white women, will always be able to come up with the resources to overcome that hurdle.”

Another issue, according to the advocates, is maternal healthcare.

Last year Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, D-MA, introduced the MOMMIES Act to address maternal mortality.

“Maternal justice is about ensuring that every mom-to-be is listened to and treated with dignity and respect during and after childbirth,” said Pressley. The bill has since been backed by other lawmakers such as Cory Booker, D-NJ, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Kamala Harris, D-CA.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42.4 deaths per 100,000 births for black women were reported between the years 2011 and 2016, compared to just 13 reported deaths for white women and 11.3 reported deaths for Latinas.

Black and Indigenous women, according to researchers, are three times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth from preventable causes such as high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and lack of prenatal care in the first trimester. Advocates say the causes are not only preventable, but can also be linked to racial bias in the medical field.

For Denita Phillips, childbirth complications and discrimination have become a new concern as she thinks about starting a family.

“It wasn’t a concern until I started hearing about black women dying during childbirth that I even considered this,” said Phillips, 29, Washington resident. “You know that stuff happened in the 1800s, so it’s crazy to know it still happens.”

Phillips works as a caregiver at a nursing home in Maryland and is able to get better medical care with insurance through her job.

“I finally have a black woman doctor so I’m not as worried as I was. I guess having someone like her takes away some of the fear about being ignored and you know they will tell you what’s really going on. I’m more comfortable sharing my concerns with her,” Phillips said.

Like many Washington residents in Southeast neighborhoods, Phillips has to travel across town to get to her doctor.

The impending closure of the United Medical Center, as reported by The Washington Post, threatens medical access for residents who have relied on the hospital for years. The maternity ward there has already closed.

As the only hospital in Ward 8, the District’s poorest area, local leaders have called on the city council and stressed the hurdles people would face to get care from other facilities around the city if UMC closes.

For young women, Whitaker said, reproductive justice is not just about women having a child, getting an abortion or birth control but about being able to care for themselves.

“Really when you look at the numbers, who are people most seeking these services? Young women,” Whitaker said. “That ability to control your reproductive future is key to being able to realize your future. We see it as impacting a woman’s entire life. Especially young black girls who are at pivotal moments in their lives.”

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