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Proponents of addressing America’s Black maternal mortality crisis scored a win this week as Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to set up a $15 million maternal care program within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It is the first bill in the Black Maternal Health Momnibus to make it through Congress and now awaits President Biden’s signature.

The “Momnibus” is a collection of a dozen bills aimed at eliminating the health care inequities that Black women and birthing people face. Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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For many Americans, that statistic is personal. Like for Charles Johnson, who lost his wife, Kira, during a routine scheduled cesarean section on April 12, 2016.

“We walked into Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles for what we expected to be the happiest day of our lives and walked straight into a nightmare,” he said on Tuesday at the 2021 STAT Summit as he retold the harrowing tale of his wife’s final moments.

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Shortly after Kira delivered their son, Langston, she was brought into the recovery room to rest. But as Charles savored his euphoric first moments following the birth of his second son, he took a look at Kira’s bedside. He noticed that her catheter was turning pink with blood.

That was around 4 p.m. The doctors and nurses assessed Kira and ordered a CT scan “stat,” he said. Five o’clock came, no scan. Six o’clock came, no scan. Seven and eight o’clock came, and still no CT scan. Kira was shivering uncontrollably. For 10 hours Charles and his family begged the medical staff for help, but their pleas fell on deaf ears, he said. The staff had said his wife was not a priority at the time.

It wasn’t until 12:30 a.m. that the doctors decided to take Kira back in for surgery. As they rolled her down the hallway, Charles walked next to her bedside and tried to tell her that everything would be OK.

“Finally, [we] got to a point in that hallway that the doors opened and they closed behind her — and that was the last time I saw Kira alive,” he said. In the operating room the doctors discovered 3 liters of blood had spilled into her abdomen. Kira died as a result of the hours of hemorrhaging.

“When we walked into the hospital that afternoon, the thought that my wife might not walk out to raise her boys never crossed my mind,” Charles said. “Kira didn’t die because she had some medical illness. Kira died because someone didn’t value her.”

Following Kira’s death, Charles founded a maternal health equity advocacy group called 4Kira4Moms to help address the epidemic that took his wife and the wives, mothers, sisters, friends, and loved ones of so many others. “We are in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis in this country,” he said. “That is shameful — not only domestically, but globally.”

Kira Johnson died from childbirth complications in April 2016. Courtesy Charles Johnson

Also included in the Momnibus is the Kira Johnson Act, which seeks to establish funding for community-based groups to provide Black pregnant people with more support.

“What Kira’s story, what Charles’s story, illustrates for us is that it’s racism that is causing the harm to Black moms and Black families and Black people with the capacity for birth,” said physician Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, during Tuesday’s panel discussion. “All of us deserve to be a priority. All of us deserve to thrive. So that’s what we have to undo and unlearn, this devaluation.”

Both Charles and Crear-Perry have testified before Congress in support of the Momnibus bills, which are co-sponsored by Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.). Underwood is also co-founder of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. During a pre-recorded speech at the STAT Summit panel, she explained how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and laid bare the stark disparities in communities of color and how it further highlights the importance of increasing care for Black mothers and pregnant people.

“This reality is alarming and unacceptable,” said Underwood. “To protect moms and babies and promote health equity during this pandemic and beyond, we need to implement comprehensive, data-driven, evidence-based policies that center the voices of families impacted by America’s Black maternal health crisis.”

The  bill Congress passed on Tuesday, called the Protecting Moms Who Served Act, was passed in a 414-9 vote. In addition to the new VA maternity care program, it will require the Government Accountability Office to report the deaths of pregnant and postpartum veterans, and to focus on any racial or ethnic disparities.

Underwood said in a statement she is “so thrilled” to see the first of the Momnibus bills advance, and that she’s hoping to pass the rest of the package as part of the major domestic policy legislation Democrats in Congress are pushing to pass this fall. The package passed the House early Friday, but must still clear the Senate to reach Biden’s desk.

The passing of the Protecting Moms Who Served Act is a major win for advocates like Johnson and Crear-Perry, and a key step toward addressing the tragedy of America’s Black maternal mortality crisis.

“It’s hard every time I tell the story, it’s painful,” Johnson said at the Summit, after showing the audience photos of his two boys that he keeps nearby. “But if by doing this, it will somehow prevent another father from having to have the conversations with his boys that I have to have with mine — it’s all worth it, it’s all worth it.”

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