“Black women die way too often when giving birth”

The S359 floor debate consisted of a series of blatantly false and sensationalist claims about health care, absent one voice in the chamber who chose to speak truth to power. After listening to her Republican colleagues escalate a political debate over a non-existent phenomenon of “infants born alive” after an abortion, Sen Erica Smith chose to combat hollow rhetoric with a personal story with widespread implications for health care in this state.

Smith, a Democrat who represents northeastern North Carolina, chose to speak about her experience receiving care after giving birth to a premature, severely underweight child. In 2007, she gave birth early to a 1lb 1oz baby boy. Having experienced health complications during that pregnancy Smith explained how grappling with the fact that she had other children who needed her ultimately colored her decision when the doctors, after trying everything they could, asked her to choose between saving the baby or herself. Her experience, she said, was her driving motivation to oppose S359 and advocate for better maternal health care instead.

Smith’s story underscored that when it comes to reproductive care, Black people who give birth are not only suffering complications, but dying at a disproportionately high rate. Black women are three to four times more likely to die during or after childbirth than white women. In the face of a sea of “pro-life” activists in the gallery, Smith highlighted the hypocrisy of politicians who make it their mission to foreclose access to abortion yet take no political action to address racial disparities in birth care.

To that point, Smith advocated for a bill that she introduces each year that would address racial disparities in reproductive care. Additionally, she drew attention to the practice of shackling of incarcerated pregnant people, a major issue discussed by the Department of Public Safety in 2018. Smith represents a rural region of eastern North Carolina, an area where lack of access to health care is a major issue. Physically accessing care is a challenge. Four rural hospitals in NC have closed since 2010 and others are operating at major losses. In addition to problems with physical access, finding adequate and comprehensive care also mounts a challenge.

Bills like Smith’s would actually keep people safer as they navigate the health care system. Unfortunately, the legislative majority is preoccupied with animating their far-right base instead of providing better health care for all. Smith, provided a necessary and urgent perspective, unfortunately conservatives in the legislature did not listen.