Kansas bill advocates more reporting on racial elements of Black maternal deaths

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, takes part in a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse with Democratic colleagues to call on better data tracking for maternity deaths. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, takes part in a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse with Democratic colleagues to call on better data tracking for maternity deaths. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A coalition of House and Senate members moved Wednesday to work for approval of legislation requiring precise accounting of maternal deaths along racial lines in Kansas.

Extent of the problem among women in Kansas isn’t fully known, the group said, in a manner consistent with statistics compiled by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on infant deaths among Black, Hispanic and white babies. The bills were introduced at the behest of women legislators and a professor of population health at University of Kansas.

“We find it unacceptable that the decision to grow one’s family substantially increases a woman’s chance of dying in this country,” said Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat. “We need to empower our health care providers to make addressing the needs of pregnant and postpartum women a priority.”

The bills would establish a review panel that includes people of color to evaluate Black maternal death cases. Information gathered in a uniform manner would be used to prevent deaths. It’s not clear whether the State and Federal Affairs Committee in both chambers would consider the legislation.

“Last spring, reports found that Black Kansans have faced a higher risk of death from COVID-19 than Kansans of other races,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, also a Wichita Democrat. “The same is true for Black mothers in Kansas. While I am hopeful that we will soon see the end of this pandemic, we must do more to confront medical racism in our state. This legislation is a good first step in addressing this dangerous health disparity.”

KDHE’s annual reports show infant mortality rates of Blacks and Hispanics to be twice as high as whites. In 2018, the year for which the most recent KDHE report was available, the agency said the rate of infant mortality for every 1,000 live births was 6.4 statewide and 5.4 for whites, 9.8 for Hispanics and 10 for Blacks.

Democratic Sen. Pat Pettey, of Kansas City, Kansas, said the right questions weren’t being asked in Kansas regarding the loss of Black women giving birth.

“Information is power so the more information that we have about maternal health care and the issues that are facing mothers in our state of Kansas, the better off it is for our families,” Pettey said. “We’re very interested in seeing families have the opportunity to know what resources are available in our state early on, in the hospital, because if they know that they’re available, then they’re going to access them.”

(This story was corrected to clarify the rate of infant mortality in Kansas was 6.4 per 1,000 live births in 2018 rather than 6.4% of live births per 1,000 in that year.)