Rep. Sheila Stubbs, D-Madison, repeated Tuesday to a crowd the argument that Wisconsin is one of the worst states in which to raise a black family.
“This is reality and begins with Wisconsin having the highest infant mortality rate for black babies nationwide," she said.
Stubbs, along with other Democratic legislators and health advocates, spoke during a press conference calling for bipartisan support for Gov. Tony Evers’ “Healthy Women, Healthy Babies” plan. Speakers said the plan is needed to address the state’s longstanding and deep health disparities for people of color, especially black women and children.
“As a black mother, this is a personal issue for me. We will no longer allow our families and communities to live with this trauma,” Stubbs said.
The press conference was featured as part of the Annual Wisconsin Women’s Health Advocacy Summit.
In his budget, Evers proposed a $28 million “Healthy Women, Healthy Babies” plan that aims to reduce health disparities and infant mortality rates, and expand access to health care like post-partum coverage, cancer screenings and STI testing. It would create an Infant Mortality Prevention Program in the Department of Health Services.
Wisconsin babies born to African-American mothers suffer the highest rates of infant mortality in the U.S., according to CDC data from 2013 to 2015. Public Health Madison & Dane County data shows that in 2016, black mothers in Dane County were 2.8 times more likely than white women to have a child die in the first year of life.
Lisa Peyton-Caire is the founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, a Dane County based nonprofit aiming to advance the health and well-being of black women and girls. The organization provides advocacy, wellness center programming, information campaigns, training opportunities and more.
“It is because of this work … that we understand firsthand the urgency and the promise that Gov. Ever’s ... proposal holds for all women,” Peyton-Caire said, including black women who “bearing the greatest brunt and the deepest, most persistent health and quality of life disparities.”
She listed many disparities, saying black women are more likely to die at younger ages and black women have significantly higher risk than white women of experiencing pregnancy-related complications and of dying during childbirth.
Evers' plan would also fund doula training and services. Peyton-Caire said her organization “feels strongly that the expansion of doulas is a necessary piece of a multi-pronged strategy to improve the birth outcomes of black women and babies.”
Micaela Berry, executive director of Harambee Village, said her community-based doula organization has seen no incidences of infant mortality and lower incidences of low birth weights. Evidence suggests that doula support can improve birth outcomes, strengthen early child-parent bonding, and encourage breastfeeding, Berry added.
Berry’s organization is one of several local efforts to narrow the infant mortality racial gap. In 2017, the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center opened in the East Madison Community Center to build stronger families and improve birth outcomes. There’s also Project Babies, which offers information, advocacy and activities to equip families, and the African American Breastfeeding Alliance of Dane County.
The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness also recently concluded a community engagement campaign asking African-American women about their experiences to find solutions to the frequency of low birth weights. Peyton-Caire said they have submitted the report and there will be a press announcement in the coming weeks.
Though they praised Evers plan, speakers were realistic about its chances, as Republicans have voiced strong opposition because it would restore eligibility to Planned Parenthood for funding.
"Republicans are not going to put one more nickel into Planned Parenthood than we do right now," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in February.
Sara Finger, founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, told the crowd it was likely that the Republican-controlled legislature would “scrap everything that Gov. Evers is putting forward.”
“Even though we don’t know the fate of some of these initiatives ... it is so incredibly important that we continue to shine a light on what could be,” she said.
“As anyone knows in a budget, you take the pieces you like, you don’t have to take everything. But there’s always room for compromise, and that’s what has to be done,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said after the event.
Taylor, who was formerly a public policy director for Planned Parenthood, said funding Planned Parenthood was “absolutely critical,” but that “it should not be used by Republicans as an excuse to not make serious investments in women’s health, in baby’s health, in our children’s health. There's no excuses anymore. There’s no excuses to not act.”
Peyton-Caire called Planned Parenthood “one of the most used services in our state for low-income and black women to access critical preventative health care services.”
Stubbs called the audience to action.
“We need you to help us in the Legislature — to do all that we can to implement the policies,” she said.
Jessie Opoien contributed to this report.