For Tennessee lawmaker, Black Maternal Health Week is personal

In 2019, less than a year after London Lamar was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, she suffered a devastating late-term pregnancy loss. Lamar herself nearly lost her life. 

Since then, the Memphis-born Democrat has gained attention as a champion of maternal health issues in her role as a state legislator. Most recently, she introduced a resolution recognizing the role that doulas – trained companions who provide support before, during and/or after childbirth – play in addressing maternal health disparities.  

This week is Black Maternal Health Week, and many of the states with the highest maternal mortality rates are in the South. In Tennessee, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues compared with white women, and the death rate for Black infants is nearly twice that of white infants.  

Reckon spoke with Rep. Lamar this week about her personal experience with pregnancy loss, and how that has guided her advocacy for improved reproductive healthcare in her role as a state legislator.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Reckon: Why is Black maternal health an important issue for you? 

Lamar: Prior to coming to the legislature, I worked at a nonprofit dealing with reproductive justice and was very aware of the disparities facing Black women and our reproductive health. In 2015, my cousin died in pregnancy and her baby died also. She was 8 months pregnant, walking out of work, and dropped dead in the parking lot.  

In October 2019, I lost my child at full term, due to an abruption caused from undiagnosed preeclampsia. I almost died myself. It was an eye-opening experience. I had already been advocating and pushing these issues around maternal health, but now it’s real. My child is now in the grave. I no longer am just an advocate; I’m talking about my own life when I bring these issues to the forefront. 

It’s taken a lot of courage for me to unapologetically put my story out there. Some people ask, ‘Why would you tell people about that?’ But on the flip side, I’ve seen so many women come out and say, ‘Me too. It happened to me.’ Those are the voices that outweigh the others. 

And now, being the only woman of childbearing age in the (Tennessee) House, who better to articulate issues around maternal health and reproductive justice than me? I feel like it’s my calling. These roles have influence and I thought, ‘What does that look like for me?’ It looks like helping women who’ve experienced what I experienced, to have a voice in government. Because our government has a hand in ensuring we can do something about this. 

How would you describe the healthcare landscape for Black women and Black mothers, particularly here in the South? 

Here in Tennessee, Black women are three times more likely to die (from pregnancy and childbirth complications) than white women, and the same for our children. There’s obviously some disparities when it comes to Black women and the birthing process.  

There is something the medical community is doing wrong when it comes to our ability to survive the birthing process. 

What changes do you want to see that you believe would make the biggest impact on Black maternal health? 

I want to see mandatory implicit bias training for all medical professionals, including OBGYNs. African Americans are on the negative end of nearly every medical diagnosis – cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease – so obviously, there needs to be attention. Black folks are essentially dying at higher rates, every which way you can think of. 

Then, expanding healthcare access for all women, especially in the African American community. We have socioeconomic disadvantages (that impact) having access to healthcare or being able to afford to see quality doctors. That’s a justice issue for Black folks. Maybe more Black women would have better maternal outcomes if we could see a doctor regularly and afford it. 

Another state legislator, State Sen. Natalie Murdock of North Carolina, cited you as an inspiration for her own work on maternal health issues in her state. How do you see your role as a state legislator in changing the healthcare landscape for Black moms, and what kind of legacy do you hope to leave? 

I had a very public pregnancy. Everybody knew what happened. And I hated that I felt so ashamed at first. You feel like it’s your fault: ‘What did I do wrong to make everything go this bad this quickly? Why couldn’t my body bring the baby to full term?’ 

But it’s also been very healing. When something traumatic happens to you and you feel like nothing is being done about it, you feel discouraged. A lot of women who’ve had this happen to them, they feel like they can’t do anything about it. But I can. I have power. For me, when I look back on my legacy and my life, I’m asking, ‘Whose story were you able to change through your lived experiences and the work you’re doing on policies?’  

It’s encouraged me to become even more driven in this work because I want to be a mom again. I want to have children again. But as of right now, I don’t think the system is working for us. 

It’s not just a London issue, it’s my cousin’s issue. It’s my friends’ issue, and for so many women around the country. If I can bring some comfort and light to somebody else, then I feel like my work as a legislator is valuable.  

What advice would you give to someone interested in advocating for improved healthcare for mothers and Black mothers in particular? 

Connect with organizations in your own city that are doing the work and get involved with them locally. Make sure you’re having conversations with your local and state officials about the disparities happening in the birthing process. And help out another mother who’s going through this, and ask her what she needs. 

The Reckon Report.
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