NEW ORLEANS (WOMENSENEWS)–Tavia Sills of Shreveport, La., is long dead.

A first-year college student, she was five months pregnant at the time of her death seven years ago. Her body was found in a pond near her home; she had been shot three times and flammable liquid poured on her body. Her murderers are now in prison; her family is still grieving.

Tragic? Yes. Rare? No. Homicides of pregnant women are all too frequent in the United States and most data indicate that murder is a leading cause of what is so politely called "pregnancy-associated deaths."

As the CEO of the National Birth Equity Project, I am dedicated to reducing what is known in the public health community as maternal health disparities. The fact is black women die three-to-four times as often as white women for causes associated with being pregnant–including homicide and suicide–and that has not changed much since 1915.

As a resident of New Orleans who previously lived in Shreveport, I am deeply saddened by data recently gathered by our state’s health department: From 2008 to 2010 my state lost 126 women who died while pregnant or within a year of being pregnant. This amounts to an overall rate of 66.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. That rate rises to 78.7 per 100,000 live births for the state’s black mothers.

Maternal Mortality Rising

We know that the maternal mortality of all women in the United States is rising and according to Justice Department data, the percentage of female murder victims slain by an "intimate" is rising as well, to almost half of all female murder victims.

We can all agree there is a tremendous need to standardize and improve hospital care to ensure that poor women and black women receive the same quality care as their wealthier or white counterparts. However, data indicate that hospital care will only get us less than halfway to closing the mortality gap. Less than half of the maternal deaths in Louisiana are due to medical causes.

Half of our state’s mothers die from homicide, suicide and accidents. These are potential community, church, school and political leaders who have been buried instead. Black women in Louisiana are 3.5 times more likely to die from gun violence than their white peers.

From the health department’s review, we know that the mothers who died in Louisiana were likely between the ages of 20 and 30. We know the vast majority of them had medical insurance coverage. We also know that pregnancy and childbirth heighten the everyday stressors of life. Expensive child care, lack of paid leave, no living wage and limited affordable housing are just a few of the social factors that families must navigate during pregnancy and soon after the child is born.

Questions to Ask

The questions that should haunt others as they haunt me are what resources and strategies are being put into place in Louisiana and nationwide to address these factors in maternal mortality?

How do we align the incentives of public health, hospitals, insurers and providers with the realities that women live and die outside of these systems? What laws are in place to protect victims of domestic violence from gun violence? Where are the innovations that will further reduce maternal homicides?

What has the community and its leadership learned or changed in the years since Sills and her baby died?

The Pregnancy Associated Mortality Review, through the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, Every Mother Counts Initiative, are beginning to ask questions about where these mothers lived, worked and loved. Yet, advocates must fight for funding to grow this initiative across the country.

Gathering the information is only step one. We must also demand that this nation make the needless loss of women, especially black women, a priority that the community invests in together to eliminate. Where are the innovations–legal, social and medical– that will further reduce maternal homicides?

Not only do these questions haunt me, they move me. The National Birth Equity Collaborative is working with other stakeholders in health, such as criminal justice, education and housing, to build a culture of health so that black women in U.S. don’t continue to die at rates on par with Iraq, Syria and North Korea. It is my hope and expectation that you will join us by contacting us to press for answers to these questions in your community.

Three years after Sills died, Lamondre Tucker, who was a senior in high school when he dumped Sills’ body in a pond in the Martin Luther King section of Shreveport not far from a clinic where I once saw patients, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. ¬†Another life destroyed and we are all left with the question of what we could have done to save Sills and prevent the future killings of mothers?

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