State Sen. Erika Geiss wants to address the inequities that lead to too many preventable, tragic outcomes for Michigan parents welcoming new children.
TAYLOR, Mich.—For State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), caring for parents and families begins long before birth, and ends long after it.
Geiss is a mother of two with a background in developmental psychology. She knows firsthand the challenges expecting parents of color and their babies face in America and in Michigan in particular. And she sees a major problem she was fortunate to dodge: infant and maternal mortality.
In Wayne County, outside of Detroit itself, for every 1,000 Black babies born, 15 died in 2018. That’s more than 3 times the rate of infant mortality among white Wayne County residents, where fewer than 5 died related to birth.
In Michigan as a whole, Black mothers are also 2.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white mothers, and those causes of death are overwhelmingly preventable, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
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These disparities exist nationwide, and are symptomatic of medical bias. And, these disparities have motivated Geiss to action.
“We have, in this country, a very high maternal mortality rate for Black folks,” Geiss told The Gander. “[I’m] addressing systemic racism and using an equity lens in all that I do.”
What to Doula About Infant and Maternal Mortality
One way Geiss is addressing childbirth and the inequities that too often lead to tragic outcomes is through easing access to a type of professional pregnancy expert called a doula.
In essence, a doula is a pregnancy navigator—someone specialized in pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum experience and the emotional and psychological journey those things entail. Rather than a medical expert like an obstetrician, a doula is focused on emotional and physical comfort, helping expectant mothers through the process of navigating the health system, and giving guidance and support both to the parent and their loved ones.
“Doulas are professionals who work alongside pregnant, laboring, and postpartum people to help them with their care and with their advocacy,” Geiss explained. “In terms of looking at things through an equity lens, the use of doulas helps with addressing and mitigating our infant mortality rate as well as our maternal mortality rate, especially for Black and brown pregnant people.”
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Doulas presence during birth is extremely important to decreasing mortality rates. They serve as a constant companion through the process of childbirth, and provide emotional support, insight into birthing technique, and most crucially advocacy when a patient’s concerns are not being seriously addressed.
Studies have shown that doulas have impacts far beyond lowering mortality rate, though. Using a doula makes a parent 4 times less likely to give birth to a child with a low birth weight and 2 times less likely to have complications.
Empowering Michiganders to seek help from doulas could have dramatic outcomes on the health of the next generation of Michiganders, Geiss believes. Especially those facing the worst outcomes today. But Geiss isn’t stopping at curbing mortality rates—she wants babies born with dignity and parents to be able to take care of them as they grow.
Not Being Born Guilty
Another major priority for Geiss is giving dignity to the children of incarcerated Michiganders. When a person behind bars gives birth, they are often shackled during the process. When birth is complete, mothers get about 24 hours with the baby before it is taken away and, often, placed in foster care.
This moment, called “the separation” by most of the 12,000 pregnant women incarcerated every year in the United States, isn’t just traumatic for the mother, but also for the newborn.
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“[We’re] working on a bill that would treat pregnant inmates as humans,” Geiss said. “That way they can have a better birthing outcome and one that doesn’t disproportionately and negatively impact their infants.”
She pointed out that expectant Michiganders who are incarcerated do get access to doulas, but her proposal would expand the kinds of accommodations made to limit the trauma on the newborn and parent. It would allow the parent to provide breastmilk for their child, as well as keep the parent unshackled during birthing.
Geiss did introduce similar legislation last year, but it didn’t make it through the Republican-controlled legislative process, she said.
Rebuilding Paid Sick Leave
In 2018, a popular and expansive package of laws to support working Michiganders was headed to the ballot. It had such widespread support for things like paid sick leave, family leave, a rising minimum wage and other policies to help Michigan workers it seemed extraordinarily likely to pass.
Republicans in Lansing pulled a controversial political maneuver to keep it off the ballot. The “adopt and amend” strategy let the Legislature accept the ballot proposal before the election, which meant voting on it was moot and it was taken off the ballot. Then after the 2018 election, Republicans radically altered the proposal, gutting most of its provisions. One in particular would have made the last year very different: bolstering paid sick leave.
The adopt and amend strategy drastically reduced the number of people that would’ve gained access to earned paid sick leave under the original proposal.
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“I think this pandemic has shown we need more people to have that access,” Geiss said, “to care for themselves, their loved ones and not spread, whether its a pandemic virus or the common cold or the flu or what have you, that they are able to adequately care for themselves and others.”
But paid sick leave can be essential to parents as well, Geiss explained. It means parents wouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and keeping their kids home from school so that they can recover from the flu or the next pandemic.
There at least is some support for Michiganders that came from President Joe Biden’s COVID relief package, the American Rescue Plan. Though narrow and expiring at the end of September, the Biden support offers incentives for businesses to provide paid sick leave for COVID-related issues.
That’s a step toward restoring what Geiss accused Republicans of gutting in 2018.