NEW ORLEANS — U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana has found himself in a firestorm in social and national media circles after being quoted as saying that the state’s high maternal mortality rate wouldn’t look as bad if you factored out the higher percentage of Black population in the state.
“About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear,” Sen. Bill Cassidy said in an interview with POLITICO for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health series Public Health on the Brink. “Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.”
Depending on how maternal mortality is counted (some states, like Louisiana include deaths of the mother up to 1 year after birth, according to Cassidy), Louisiana's numbers change, but in every count, the state is among the worst for maternal mortality in general and worse yet for outcomes for Black mothers.
According to World Population Review, Louisiana's maternal mortality is 58.1 per 100,000 live births, the highest in the United States and more than triple the United States average of 17.4 deaths per 100,000. A 2019 report in U.S. News has Louisiana second worst in the nation with 44.5 per 100,000 live births.
You need only to search Twitter for Bill Cassidy to see the upset with the comment. Articles on Vanity Fair, Yahoo! and Business Insider, to name a few, highlighted the “correct our population for race” segment and used it to post headlines like:
Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy: Our Maternal Death Rates are Only Bad if You Count Black Women on Vanity Fair and Sen. Bill Cassidy: Louisiana’s Maternal Mortality Rate is Only Bad if You Include Black Women on Business Insider.
U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin Tweeted her disgust with Cassidy’s quote. “@BillCassidy is a sitting GOP Senator and a doctor. He doesn’t seem to be care that Black women are disproportionately dying in his state. His indifference is sickening to read but it helps explain why America continue to struggle with a maternal health crisis.
Cassidy fired back on Twitter Sunday morning saying that his full quote was being mischaracterized and that an explanation of the state’s high maternal mortality rate was being misconstrued into indicating he doesn’t care about Black maternal care.
“Individuals are cutting off & misquoting my statements highlighting minority health disparities to create a malicious & fake narrative. My entire conversation was about my work to address racial bias in healthcare & address high maternal mortality among African American moms:”
“Minority health disparity is a real issue we need to address, and fake news and false outrage hurt our ability to make progress.”
Cassidy even pointed out what appeared to be a guest commentary in the Daily Kos, which asserted that the senator has long been a champion of improving health care in minority communities.
Xavier University, a prominent HBCU with a distinguished record of producing minority medical professionals, had Senator Cassidy as the commencement speaker at its inaugural Health Physicians Assistant Program in March, citing, “Prior to serving in Congress, Dr. Cassidy worked in Louisiana’s charity hospital system for over 25 years and co-founded the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic, providing free health care to uninsured and underinsured patients.”
Cassidy’s quote that is drawing the scrutiny came as part of a wide-ranging health interview with Politico as part of a Harvard University public health series that dealt with abortion and COVID in particular. The question about Louisiana’s high rate of maternal deaths came as Cassidy talked about improving maternal health care for mothers nationwide as part of the abortion line of questioning.
Politico, which conducted the interview, said that Cassidy did state that racial bias was one of the factors that caused maternal mortality rates to be higher in Louisiana, which has one of the highest percentages of Black population with nearly one-third of the residents listed as Black.
And Cassidy has proposed and helped pass legislation to research minority health disparities and to improve health care for expectant mothers.
But Cassidy’s explanation and prior work did not draw as much attention as the comment that seemed to separate Black mothers’ outcomes from Louisiana mothers overall. Particularly troubling seemed to be the phrase “correct our population for race.”