Reproductive rights and equality for all

Reproductive rights and equality for all



The Freeport Memorial Library hosted a detailed, lively panel discussion last Friday, connecting women’s reproductive rights to the New York State Equal Rights Amendment.

The program was organized by the League of Women Voters of Central Nassau.

On Nov. 5, voters will have an opportunity to enshrine a revised version of the state amendment in law, by approving it in the voting booth.

New York currently has an Equal Rights Amendment that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, creed or religion. The revised amendment adds more protected categories: ethnicity, national origin, age, disability and sex.

The category of sex is broken down into “sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy.”

Abortion access may be the issue that most readily comes to mind under the heading “reproductive health care,” but it is not the only concern for women.

Nondiscriminatory treatment before, during and after pregnancy is not uniformly protected throughout the state, nor is government support for children’s health consistent statewide, the panelists said.

Susan Cushman, an English professor at Nassau Community College, defined “reproductive justice” by referring to Loretta Ross, a professor of women and gender studies at Smith College.

Ross named three tenets of reproductive justice: the right not to have a child, which involves abortion access; the right to have as many childrenas a woman may want; and the right to raise children in a healthy environment.

“We need a state constitution that protects your rights and my rights to have the bodily care that we deserve as a basic right,” Cushman said. She referenced a lawsuit, Zurawski v. State of Texas, in which 23 women are suing Texas because they could not obtain abortions that their doctors deemed medically necessary.

Anna Georgoulas, founder of Dovely Doula Services, explained that doulas — non-medical professionals who provide emotional, physical and informational support to new and expectant parents — help fight the high infant and maternal mortality rate in the United States. They help clients create birth plans and train women to advocate for themselves throughout pregnancy, birth and postpartum life. Doulas are “an information hub” for women, Georgoulas said.

Sharon McDermott, a doula whose business is called Healthy Healing, said that New York has instituted ways for birth doula providers to be paid through Medicaid, which increases equitable access for women lacking insurance.

Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health at Hofstra University, related the history of Birth Justice Warriors, which she co-founded with Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust in 2018. Hempstead attorney Frederick K. Brewington lent support by framing the excessive mortality rates among women and infants of color in Nassau County as a civil rights issue.

Pre-existing conditions, like hypertension, are common causes of maternal death, Hackett explained, but a leading cause of infant mortality is stress on the mother during pregnancy.

“We do peer-to-peer education,” Hackett said. “We work with other clinicians, and partner with major health organizations such as Northwell Health to increase health care access.”

“What is happening in Nassau County drove us to action,” Taylor-Walthrust said. “Roosevelt has the highest numbers for infant mortality and low birthweight babies, with Hempstead being number 2 and number 3 being Westbury. We make sure that mother and baby have as healthy an environment as they can, and we teach them that they have a right to ask questions. We educate the hospital doctors and nurses and social workers to treat the mothers with respect.”

Birth Justice Workers has instigated change at the local, state and federal levels. “Women’s maternal health is now being recognized throughout New York state, and in particular in Nassau County, because of the work that Martine and I would not give up on,” Taylor-Walthrust said.

Cushman closed the program by urging voter support for the state Equal Rights Amendment. “For the first time, we are putting reproductive health squarely in the broader framework of protecting all of our rights and freedoms,” she said. “Our coalition is made up of registered Democrats, registered Republicans and independent voters. This is a pan-partisan initiative.”

Deputy Town Supervisor Dorothy Goosby, a member of the League of Women Voters, visited the program and urged attendees to join the organization.

“We need women like you to be involved,” Goosby said, “because it’s the only way we’re going to get things done.

Photo: Panelists at the League of Women Voters of Central Nassau event, hosted by the Freeport Memorial Library last Friday, discussed women’s issues and the state Equal Rights Amendment. From left were Susan Cushman, Anna Georgoulas, Sharon McDermott, Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, a co-founder of the Birth Justice Warrior Project, and Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health at Hofstra University.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Reine Bethany

LI Herald Editorial: Congress Should Support Maternal Health Grants, Feb 3, 2022

LI Herald Editorial: Congress Should Support Maternal Health Grants, Feb 3, 2022

Featuring Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust and the Birth Justice Warriors, a program co-founded by Taylor-Walthrust and Martine Hackett of Hofstra University.

In Nassau County, babies in communities of color are significantly more likely to die during or shortly after birth than in predominantly white communities.”

U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, last week called on Congress to provide $7 million to fund evidence-based training programs to reduce implicit bias in maternal health, and $25 million to establish a program to deliver integrated health care services to pregnant women and new mothers that will reduce the inordinately large number of maternal deaths among Black non-Hispanic women.

It is an urgent issue, including here in Nassau County, one that the Herald first called on government officials to address in 2019. We are pleased to see that Gillibrand has taken up the cause.

Three years ago, the Herald undertook a year-long series examining racism in Nassau. We led with an exposé on issues of maternal health faced by Black women throughout the county. In particular, we looked at the group Birth Justice Warriors, founded by Hofstra University Professor Dr. Martine Hackett and the Rev. Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, a pastor and the director of outreach services for the North Shore Child Family Guidance Center, a nonprofit mental health agency with offices in Roslyn Heights, Manhasset and Westbury.

Among the central issues that Birth Justice Warriors is working to address is infant mortality, which is a leading indicator of a community’s well-being, according to the Nassau County Department of Health’s 2016-18 Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan. When children are dying in high numbers at birth — the start of life — there are probably myriad other health concerns in a community.

In the majority of white communities across Nassau, the infant mortality rate ranged from 0 to 3 in 1,000 births in 2014-16, according to the state Department of Health. Meanwhile, in most communities of color, the infant mortality rate was three to nine times that.

In its annual rankings of healthiest counties in New York, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranked Nassau the second-healthiest of the state’s 62 counties this year. When that data is broken down into individual ZIP codes, however, a disturbing pattern is made clear in communities of color, Hackett said: Babies there are significantly more likely to die during or shortly after birth than in predominantly white communities.

County officials identified nine communities of color and communities with large minority populations — Elmont, Freeport, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Inwood, Long Beach, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury — with measurably greater health concerns than nearby white communities.

Nassau is the 13th-wealthiest county in the U.S., with an average annual household income of around $93,000, according to census data. “The affluence of the county as a whole masks the needs of these severely underserved selected communities,” the county’s report states.

Taken as a whole, the infant mortality rate in these communities is “nearly double that of the rest of the county,” the report continues.

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the discrepancy on a discrete factor like income level, according to Hackett: Women with fewer financial resources are unable to afford the same level of care that women of greater means can. But statistics tell a more complicated story.

How, for example, does one explain Elmont, a solidly middle-class community of color with an annual average household income of $94,353, above the county average? It has the second-highest infant mortality rate in Nassau.

Access to health care alone “is not sufficient” to explain the disparities in health outcomes, Hackett said. Bias and systemic racism also play their parts, she believes.

Clearly, issues of implicit bias, and at times outright racism, come into play, even in the medical field. It’s time that the federal government study and address them so all of us can better understand the psycho-social complexities of the doctor-patient relationship that can determine maternal health outcomes. 

February is Black History Month. Historically, there is a great deal of mistrust in Black communities of the medical field because of past wrongs, not the least of which was the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” from 1932 to 1972, when Black sharecroppers with the venereal disease were left untreated to see what would happen, even after penicillin, a cure for syphilis, was widely available after 1945.

The only way to build trust in Black communities is to address their issues head-on, with science-based studies and programs, as Gillibrand has proposed. Congress thus should appropriate the funds that the senator seeks.