Chair of house study committee questions Georgia’s rank for maternal deaths

Tamara Stevens (center) holds the door open for those attending a meeting of a study committee on maternal mortality held Thursday. Members of the Handmaid Coalition of Georgia were a regular presence at the state Capitol this legislative session during the debate over the anti-abortion bill. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

State lawmakers are taking a new look at why Georgia consistently ranks so poorly – and sometimes last – when it comes to maternal deaths and what can be done about it. 

But a new group’s first blush at addressing the problem started Thursday with a focus on how accurately Georgia has been graded when it comes to the number of women dying from complications of their pregnancies.

It’s an emotionally charged issue that has become even more so since state lawmakers passed a controversial anti-abortion measure earlier this year that bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy.

“The data is so important in really learning where you are and how you need to go forward,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who is chairing the study committee. “If the data is incorrect or incomplete or outdated, then you are working with one hand tied behind your back because you are working with incorrect data.”

Cooper took issue with a 2010 Amnesty International report that declared Georgia to have the worst rate of maternal mortality in the country, saying it used old data.

That report ultimately grabbed the attention of lawmakers and led to the creation of a group, called the Maternal Mortality Review Committee, that reviews every suspected pregnancy-related death in Georgia and compiles in-depth reports on the scale of the problem and causes of death.

But because the work is time consuming, it can take years before a new report is released. The committee has only just finished reviewing deaths from 2015, the details of which have not been released. The state recently increased the committee’s funding by $200,000 so more reviewers could be hired.

“I would say that Georgia has a high maternal mortality ratio. Whether it’s the worst in the country, I’m not sure. But it’s bad,” said Dr. Michael Lindsay who co-chairs the review committee.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper. Marietta Republican

Cooper also expressed her concerns over rankings that rely on an early estimate of possible maternal deaths, which she noted might include a woman who died in an unrelated car accident.

Of the 250 deaths reviewed by the state committee from 2012 to 2014, 101 were concluded to be related to the woman’s pregnancy, according the review committee’s report published this year.

Cooper said the national focus on this preliminary estimate is part of what may be making Georgia look worse than it is on maternal health rankings. The committee also focused on the techniques used to gather the data, such as a checked box on death certificates. 

The line of questioning prompted objections from some.

“In any event, regardless of the best or most favorable number for Georgia or the worst for Georgia, for women of color, it’s still a crisis,” said state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat who is on the study committee, triggering a smattering of applause from the packed committee room.

Black women are about 3.3 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts, according to the review committee’s report.

But the other Democrat on the panel, Forest Park state Rep. Valencia Stovall, said afterwards that she was fine with the focus on the data because she said quality data is important for lawmakers to understand how best to address the problem.

Rep. Mable Thomas, an Atlanta Democrat

Still, a group of lawmakers – led by state Rep. Mable Thomas, an Atlanta Democrat – and advocates quickly convened in the hallways outside the meeting room to plan a counter press conference for Friday that would offer a different point of view on the issue.

“It’s not that you don’t want to understand data and procedure, but people came to give testimony and hear something about the steps toward preventing it,” Thomas told the Georgia Recorder.

The state committee determined that 60% of the pregnancy-related deaths from the two-year period were preventable. The leading cause of death was cardiomyopathy. Other common causes of death include hemorrhage and cardiovascular and coronary conditions.

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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