Bioethics for Breakfast: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the Childbearing Year

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyEvery woman who dies during or after pregnancy has a story to tell, a story that can teach us how to prevent other maternal deaths.

Renée Canady, PhD, MPA, and Cheryl Larry-Osman, RN, MS, CNM, presented at the February 21st Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Just Caring for All Michigan Mothers: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the Childbearing Year.” Drawing from the 2018 Michigan Maternal Mortality Surveillance report, the speakers reminded the audience that “every woman who dies during or after pregnancy has a story to tell, a story that can teach us how to prevent other maternal deaths.” The presenters introduced the session with compelling personal experiences, illustrating the scope and scale of the problem. Using an ethics yardstick Dr. Canady then invited the 33-member audience to respond to graphic depictions of the U.S. maternal mortality death rate – the highest rate within the developed world. Those numbers give evidence of a profound social injustice and a need to modify resource allocation accordingly.

Yet as in much of the U.S., evidence suggests that Michigan has not met the mark. As the speakers noted, race matters – a lot. From 2011-2015 Black women in Michigan were found to be three times more likely than white women to die of a pregnancy-related cause; upon review nearly half (44%) were considered preventable. Black mothers in Michigan were twice as likely to die from a pregnancy-associated cause; upon review, 39% were deemed preventable. Social and medical advances have disproportionately failed to address pregnancy needs for Black mothers. Sociodemographic variables do not fully explain the observed gap – the disparities are rooted in multilevel (system, practitioner, patient) inequalities including place, communication, and discrimination. A health equity approach recognizes that one must comprehensively address institutional racism, class oppression, and exploitative gender discrimination.

As a just and caring society we have an obligation to ensure safe and healthy pregnancy and birth experiences for all mothers. Ms. Larry-Osman noted that a virtue ethics approach leans on the character of health professionals to engage compassion, reason and discipline in the interest of maternal well-being. In concert, a communitarian ethics approach emphasizes shared values, ideals and goals to identify barriers to care as well as interventions and solutions. As reported by attendee Lynette Biery, Maternal Child Health Director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, maternal mortality reviews such as the Michigan Maternal Mortality Surveillance Program provide data necessary to address changes that would improve women’s health before, during and after pregnancy. Michigan has seen some improvement after the 2016 implementation of hemorrhage and hypertension “safety bundles” and the MI-AIM (Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health) is now working on opioid bundles as well. But given the scale of the problem, are such efforts enough?

Approximately 50% of Michigan women rely on Medicaid for prenatal care and give birth in a Medicaid supported hospital, but that program is targeted for cuts under the current federal administration. What is the state/physician obligation to address this? Should the state ensure the availability of labor support “doulas” as part of standard maternity care as is being done in other states? Mortality reviews help, but are they sufficient to raise awareness and address the multilevel problems? What structural strategies might best pave the way for continuity of care and community care? How can solutions avoid racist calls for “personal responsibility for heath”? What are the effects of pervasive racism and how might the state best address them? Many in audience lingered past the session’s end to continue discussing these questions. Our thanks to health law firm Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman for generously supporting these important conversations.

Renée Canady
Renée Canady, PhD, MPA, is Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Public Health Institute. She is a nationally recognized thought leader in health disparities and inequities, cultural competence, and social justice. She additionally is Assistant Professor in MSU’s Division of Public Health within the College of Human Medicine. In her scholarly work, she emphasizes the social context of mental and physical health, and the pregnancy experiences of African-American women.

Cheryl Larry-Osman
Cheryl Larry-Osman, RN, MS, CNM, is a Perinatal Clinical Nurse Specialist at Henry Ford Hospital (Detroit). She additionally is trained as a Healthcare Equity Ambassador for the hospital and serves as a cultural competency and healthcare equity expert within that system. She has over 18 years of experience in obstetrics and is a passionate advocate for the optimal and equitable care of women and children.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

About Michigan State Bioethics

Devoted to understanding and teaching the ethical, social and humanistic dimensions of illness and health care since 1977.
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