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On maternal mortality rates, GOP senator gets key elements wrong

According to Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator, maternal mortality data in his home state would look less tragic if only we excluded Black women.


Maternal mortality rates in Louisiana are some of the worst in the country, which should be of great interest to policymakers in the Pelican state. Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, however, apparently sees the problem from a rather narrow perspective. Politico reported:

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.

In an interview with Politico for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health series “Public Health on the Brink,” the GOP senator said, “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. 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.”

It’s worth emphasizing that Cassidy, before getting involved in electoral politics, was a medical doctor.

There’s a lot to unpack in a quote like this, but let’s focus on two specific points of concern, starting with the senator’s use of the phrase “whatever reason.”

Cassidy seems to recognize a real racial disparity: As Politico’s report noted, in Louisiana, four Black mothers die for every white mother. That’s worse than national averages, which are themselves tragic and indefensible, and helps put the state near the bottom of the United States overall.

But to hear Cassidy tell it, this is some kind of odd mystery. He accepts that the data on maternal mortality rates is true, but he apparently can’t explain why it’s true.

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Sen. Bill Cassidy speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on October 19, 2021, in Washington.Rod Lamkey / Pool/Getty Images

The problem, of course, is that there is no mystery. As physician-turned-senators really ought to know, there are structural barriers that stand in the way of adequate care. A report from Talking Points Memo added this morning, “It’s been well-established that it’s because of income inequality, systemic racism in the American health care and various social barriers that put Black women at higher risk for pregnancy-related deaths.”

But just as problematic, if not more so, was the other part of Cassidy’s quote. As the Republican lawmaker sees it, his home state of Louisiana has a lot of Black women. So, when it comes to scrutinizing maternal mortality data, if we “correct” the state’s population for race, Louisiana is “not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear.”

In other words, according to Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator, maternal mortality data in his home state would look less tragic if only we excluded Black women.

After the 2016 elections, Donald Trump had a habit of bragging about his success with women voters. “You know I got 52 percent with women,” the then-president bragged. “Everyone said this couldn’t happen — 52 percent.”

As regular readers may recall, it was a line he repeated over and over again. There was just one important problem: Trump received 52 percent support from white women voters, but 42 percent of women overall.

For the former president, the key to making his numbers look better was to simply declare that Black women, in a rather literal sense, didn’t count.

Cassidy should know better than to think along similar lines.