Advocates and Women’s Health experts delighted by the City Council's decision to address the issue affecting the African American women

The City of Philadelphia will support healthexperts and advocates in reversing the trend of increasing maternal mortality among African American women by expanding equitable coverage for maternal health services.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass declared that support during a recent hearing in Council chambers after hearing the testimony of Edward G. Gilmore, an African American veteran, whose daughter died last summer while giving birth.

“We’ll do something”, Councilwoman Bass said.

Pennsylvania State Representative Morgan Cephas (D-192) testified that the death of Gilmore’s daughter happened in her West Philadelphia district.  City to take action. 

“As we sit here… I want to tell you about Ms. Lashana Gilmore from my district. On July 26th, this very healthy young woman went into labor. She made her way to the hospital to experience what was supposed to be a joyous occasion…. but Lashana didn’t survive delivery”, Rep Cephas said.

“What we do know is that our mothers are dying. We also know that black women and women of color are at greater risk of maternal death regardless of education committed to addressing the core factors of this issue”, Cephas highlighted in her testimony. Ms. Cephas promised to introduce “pieces of legislation” at the state level. She said if passed, the legislation will help increase access to care and address racism and bias in the healthcare system.”


The decision byCity Council to take action followed a succession of testimonies on Tuesday, October 15, by health experts, advocates, affected women and families, during a public hearing by Council’sCommittee on Public Health and Human Services.

While health experts, advocates and affected women acknowledged the adverse impact of pathological causes they attributed the issue of maternal mortality among African-American women to institution racism.

LaQuesha Garland, of the Family Health and Birth Center in Philadelphia, recounted her childbirth experience that she attributed to institutional racism.

“While pregnant with my son, my birth plan was simple. I was going to have a natural birth and breastfeed… I had a happy, healthy pregnancy and was looking forward to motherhood… [Two] weeks past my due date, I needed to be induced. Despite my positive attitude, I nearly died,” Garland said.

My doctor’s shift ended, and my care was transferred to strangers, and what I felt was violation at the hands of what seemed to be the entire hospital staff, led my dysfunctional labor”, Garland testified.

“Violation; trauma; failure; these were the words that defined my birth story, and unfortunately, the birth stories of all too many black women in this city”, she added.

Statistics presented by the Maternal Mortality Review Team (MMRT) show that “black non-Hispanic” women account for 41% of women “of childbearing age in Philadelphia;” and “white non-Hispanic women account for 35%”.

Yet,African American women “have accounted for 75% of Philadelphia’s pregnancy-related deaths” from 2010 through 2018, accounted for only a quarter percentage, statedAasta D. Mehta, Women’s Health Policy Advisor for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Health experts, during their testimonies, stated obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathies, hemorrhage, cardiovascular disease, overall childhood stress etc. arefactors in maternal deaths among African American women.

But all these factors are due to the lack of education and information, as well as the gaps in community resources related to transportation, health insurance; in short, poverty and apparent institutional segregation, according to health advocates for women.

This lack of education and informationcreates barriers and “mistrust of traditional medical services”, claimed Wadia Mulla, Medical Director –Labor & Delivery– at Temple University Hospital.

A great number of black women who get pregnant do not receive enough medical attention; they are usually abandoned to their own fate until the due date where they, very often, encounter serious delivery complications.

“The lack of service that I received and the overall understanding of what I needed to care for myself and these tiny children wasn’t communicated or understood. There were times where I was unclear of it myself”, Theresa Pettaway, founder and Executive Director of Pettaway Pursuit Foundation, testified. Pettaway had experienced two complicated deliveries as a teen and as an adult.

Theresa Pettaway, after giving her testimony before the Committee on Public Health and Human Services

Even after delivery, Pettawaysaid, her babies were kept away from her for months; a detail that could cause postpartum death since she was worrying whether or not her child was well fed.

Councilwoman Bass mentioned that only three percentof cancer research is dedicated to the African American community. Thisevidence might explain pediatrician Kathy Reeves’s testimony that notedAfrican-American adults have two times higher rate of cancer.

“We also know one of the biggest adverse experiences any child can experience is racism,” Dr. Reeves said. “Racism makes every other trauma worse. Racism makes every solution harder.”

To “reverse the trend”, the City Council will launch a program that “includes expanding equitable coverage for a full range of maternal health services, including doula and midwifery, behavioral health, and paid parental leave.”

State Representative Cephas believes that “legislation is great” but it is far from being the only solution to the problem. She said that legislation “takes time, and a vote from the majority”; therefore, “mothers and families should be a priority” before any legislation.

Prior to any action that Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services envisions, a couple of African-American women affected by maternal mortality have already started helping vulnerable women.

Saleemah McNeil, Reproductive Psychotherapist serving, in Philadelphia and surrounding counties, said that she is helping the community without receiving any funding from the city or the state, despite the $1.5 million recently given by Governor Tom Wolf for women’s healthcare.

Ms. McNeil had been victim of postpartum mood fluctuations in the past due to the lack of assistance and mistrust.

“Black women are being dismissed, ignored and not properly cared for because of hospital practices that do not support us”, she said.

“I do not want another parent to go months without care because of the fear, shame and guilt associated with a broken system not constructed for us. For this, I have founded Oshuna Family Center and launched a citywide initiative to reduce black maternal mortality with the Maternal Wellness Village… We are grassroots and working without funding to meet the need of our community. We do it from a place of survival and sheer passion”, Ms. McNeil said.


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