Bills offer birth justice, reduced mortality for Black and Indigenous Minnesotans

Two senators look at notes
Senators Clare Oumou Verbeten (left) and Mary Kunesh share notes at the start of the new legislative session at the State Capitol on Feb. 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Black and Indigenous pregnant Minnesotans have long faced more health disparities than their white counterparts. Now, there’s a push at the Legislature to change that.

DFL Sen. Mary Kunesh — who is the first Indigenous Minnesotan elected to the state Senate — is sponsoring a pair of bills to reduce harmful birthing experiences and help Black and Indigenous parents heal from past traumas.

Six nonprofit organizations from American Indian and African American communities in Minneapolis came together in 2022 to form the Birth Justice Collaborative in partnership with Hennepin County. They believe all pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.

“One of the things we hear consistently is that Native women are reluctant to go to larger health systems where they do not feel as comfortable as they feel a sense of discrimination,” said Antony Stately, who leads the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis. “They are anxious about their own family's history of having been treated poorly in large health systems.”

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The bills before the Legislature propose $600,000 total in grants for the Birth Justice Collaborative and the Native American Community Clinic to plan targeted birth centers where Black and American Indian parents can get support, resources and culturally appropriate care — such as holistic medicine and traditional healing.

Pastor Alika Galloway, one of the BJC’s leaders, said a retreat center “reimagined how families access support during pregnancy and family care by acting as a single-entry point for pregnant people and their families.”

Despite American Indians representing 1.7 percent of the birthing population in Minnesota, they account for 12 percent of pregnancy-associated deaths, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Over 26 percent of these deaths are African American Minnesotans, who make up just 13 percent of the birthing population.

At a hearing Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted to move the bills ahead for consideration in a larger omnibus appropriations bill, though it will likely be several weeks before we know if either of these bills will receive funding this year or wait for another session.