In Philly, maternal mortality, health care inequities take center stage at abortion access hearing

‘The United States has the highest rates of maternal morbidity and mortality of any developed country in the world,’ Elmore said. ‘This does not demonstrate a pro-life agenda’

By: - July 26, 2022 5:45 pm

State Reps. MaryLouise Isaacson and Morgan Cephas at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2022 (Capital-Star screen capture).

At a joint hearing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate heard from physicians, providers, public officials, and advocates about the “far-reaching” impact of the end of Roe v. Wade in Pennsylvania. 

The hearing, the second in a series of meetings about reproductive healthcare in Pennsylvania, focused on the impact abortion bans would have on Pennsylvania’s maternal mortality rate and the implications for OB-GYN physicians, as well as how advocates and providers are faring with an influx of out-of-state patients. 

“It is critical that we do not limit access to abortion,” Aasta Mehta, medical officer of Women’s Health for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health told members of the House and Senate Democratic Policy Committees. “Being denied access to abortion results in poor health, financial, and family outcomes for women and birthing people.”

Mehta also said that restricting abortion care in Pennsylvania would exacerbate inequities in medicine, specifically, reproductive health care.

Aasta Mehta, medical officer of women’s health at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, testifies to lawmakers at a Democratic Policy hearing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2022 (Capital-Star screen capture).

“Studies show carrying a pregnancy to term is markedly more dangerous than a safe abortion with the risk of death of childbirth approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion,” Mehta told the panel. “Between 2013-2018, the city [Philadelphia] suffered 110 deaths associated with pregnancy.”

Mehta said that 52 percent of the pregnancy-associated deaths in the city occurred in women under the age of 30. Additionally, Mehta said that 75 percent of the women with pregnancy-associated deaths were known to be Medicaid beneficiaries. 

“Black women accounted for 58 percent of the pregnancy-associated deaths despite only accounting for 43 percent of births,” Mehta said. “And Black women in the city are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.”

A statewide abortion ban would “codify” those inequities and lead to more pregnancy-related deaths, Mehta cautioned. 

Ceshia Elmore, a community organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a national advocacy group, echoed Mehta’s concerns about an increase in maternal mortality rates.

The United States has the highest rates of maternal morbidity and mortality of any developed country in the world,” Elmore said. “This does not demonstrate a pro-life agenda.”

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, said that a potential increase in maternal mortality rates in Pennsylvania is “absolutely unacceptable.”

Elmore also testified to the impact abortion bans will have on Black families and communities. 

“We know that Black birthing individuals will be those most affected by this overturning,” Elmore said. “This amplifies the agenda to dismantle black family structures, perpetuate generational poverty, and cause division in our communities.”

Elmore also commented on SB106, a constitutional amendment package advanced in a late-night session last month, to put the right to abortion care in Pennsylvania to voters. 

Pa. Senate Republicans advance late-night constitutional amendment package on abortion, voter ID

Elmore said that SB106 would compromise the basic human rights of birthing people, and cautioned against any effort by lawmakers to criminalize abortion. 

“Denying bodily autonomy and criminalizing abortion is just another tactic to limit the people’s power,” Elmore said. “If abortion is made into a felony offense, we know what felons cannot do in most states—vote.”

Sarah Gutman, an OB-GYN and complex family medicine specialist at UPenn Medicine told the committee that she worries confusion over state-level abortion laws will affect physicians’ abilities to make potentially life-saving decisions. She said she also fears that bans will criminalize providers for trying to do what is medically best for their patients. 

“If Pennsylvania lawmakers restrict access to abortion care, they are making deeply personal decisions on behalf of their constituents that they do not have the medical expertise to make,” Gutman said. “We need to enact legislation protecting our providers’ ability to care for these patients. We need to build our clinical capacity, knowing that demand on our clinics, support staff, and medical staff will rise.”

Gutman told the committee that she is concerned that people, fearing the potential repercussions, will stop seeking care. 

“I really worry that people will stop seeking care,” Gutman said, adding that in Texas, where abortion is banned after six weeks, “Individuals who had a complication, such as their water breaking, before 22 weeks of pregnancy were denied standard medical care and forced to wait until they became sick before receiving treatment.

“In this cohort, the risk of maternal morbidity nearly doubled after abortion bans were enacted, without any improvement in fetal outcomes,” Gutman said. “In this world, nobody wins. People will get sick. People will die.” 

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.