Sen. Bill Cassidy says Louisiana's maternal mortality rate isn't bad if you don't count Black people

Sen. Bill Cassidy says Louisiana's maternal mortality rate isn't bad if you don't count Black people
Bill Cassidy speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in 2011, Gage Skidmore

You’ll be heartened to learn that we’ve got a great country if you don’t count the plight of oppressed people or the negligence, viciousness, ignorance, and greed of the people in power. Other than that, we’re just like Denmark, only with lots more Old Country Buffets!

That’s not to say the U.S. isn’t a great country. It is. We just lose our way sometimes—and right about now I’m reminded of the soldier in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan who stumbles around in abject confusion looking for his severed arm on the beach.

In a recent interview with Politico, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy attempted to deflect attention from his state’s abysmal maternal mortality rate by blaming Black people for the barriers and systemic issues that have led to, well, high mortality rates among Black mothers.


Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Louisiana’s maternal mortality rate — one of the worst in the nation — does not tell the whole story of maternal health in the state because of its large Black population and the uncommonly broad definition Louisiana uses.

“About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear,” Sen. Bill Cassidy said in an interview with POLITICO for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health series Public Health on the Brink. “Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.”

For whatever reason? Hmm, what might those reasons be? Because Sen. Cassidy appears to believe it’s a big fucking mystery.

Well, for one thing, there are the socioeconomic disparities that greatly affect access to prenatal health care and health care in general, especially in this country. These disparities contribute immensely to worse outcomes. And the key driver of these disparities is—you guessed it—Republican politicians like Bill Cassidy.

Michelle Williams, the dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health, laid out numerous reasons for these terrible outcomes in response to Cassidy’s deliberately obtuse jibber-jabber. And those causes go well beyond a simple lack of access to proper care:

Another well-documented driver of disparities: During childbirth and recovery, as in other aspects of medical care, Black women have far too often been dismissed as complainers when they seek help for symptoms that can presage serious complications, such as shortness of breath or swelling legs. It happened even to Serena Williams.
Researchers have also begun to document the pernicious “weathering” effects of chronic stress among people of color. This stress, often stemming from both structural racism and individual acts of discrimination, has a corrosive effect on health over time and can affect multiple body systems, even in relatively young and otherwise healthy women. Pregnancy can magnify the impacts of weathering and lead to serious complications.

Of course, Cassidy’s “reasoning” is pretty noxious if you stop to think about what he’s saying—to white people, that is: “Hey, don't worry about it. You’re doing just fine.”

Williams again:

We have a crisis in maternal mortality in this country, and it’s a crisis of terrifying proportions for women of color. This is not a moment to quibble about how states are ranked. It’s not a moment to correct for race. It’s a moment to step up and declare that our rate of maternal mortality in the United States is shameful and unacceptable. It’s a moment to assert that Louisiana—precisely because it has such a large population of Black women—must seize a leadership role in making pregnancy and childbirth safer for all.

Of course, delving into the real reasons for these widely divergent outcomes is hard—which is why Cassidy seems content to simply throw up his hands and say “whatevs.” But while these problems may seem intractable, that perception only exists because we’ve spent so many years shrugging our shoulders and ignoring our history. So let’s ignore it even harder, shall we?

Fortunately, not everyone in Louisiana is as benighted as Cassidy.

Veronica Gillispie-Bell, the medical director of Louisiana’s Perinatal Quality Collaborative and Pregnancy Associated Mortality Review, noted that “race is a social construct, it is not a biological condition,” and poorer outcomes are always going to come down to racism whether we want to admit it or not.

“There’s two things that are always going to drive the disparities. It’s going to be systemic racism — the historical processes and policies that have been put in place that disenfranchise Black and brown people — and then the other part of that is going to be implicit bias,” said Gillispie-Bell. “Black and brown individuals don’t always get the same quality of health care in the health care system as their white counterparts.”


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