By Ariama C. Long
Brooklyn’s Democratic Party boss and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn shared her struggles with a previous pregnancy that inspired her to pass maternal health legislation. She, in alignment with city council and Mayor Eric Adams, continues to fight to address maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the city.
The city’s data indicates about 30 birthing people in New York City die each year of a pregnancy-related cause and about 3,000 women “almost die” during childbirth, with the majority of cases being people of color.
“Having been a statistic myself and having lost a child, it’s certainly an interest for me,” said Bichotte Hermelyn.
On Aug. 23, during the height of the frenzy that followed the abolishment of Roe v. Wade, Bichotte Hermelyn introduced Mickie’s Law (A10659). A Black woman in Texas was forced to carry to term a dead fetus. She couldn’t get the fetus removed because it was considered an abortion. Mickie’s Law ensures mothers who encounter fetal deaths get the treatment they need to remove a dead fetus, especially in the event of an emergency. Even in New York State, expecting mothers aren’t always guaranteed timely access to procedures that would remove a baby that has died.
Bichotte Hermelyn, 49, is currently about 8 months pregnant and due to deliver in 5 weeks, she said. She’s a little nervous this time around because of how different the experience has been. Because of the mishaps and mishandling that led to the death of her first child, she’s taking extra precautions with medications, bedrest, and a planned Caesarean (c-section) operation.
During her first pregnancy, even with top doctors at Columbia Hospital, Bichotte Hermelyn said she didn’t have the same kind of access, information, care, or proper treatment regardless of her socioeconomic status as a political figure. “Racism is real,” said Bichotte Hermelyn.
Bichotte Hermelyn recounted that she was experiencing high preterm labor where her baby was “bulging out” when two white female nurses told her that her bed was needed and that staff could either terminate the baby or she could leave. “There was no compassion, no need to retain me in the hospital to monitor me,” said Bichotte Hermelyn. She said she was surrounded by two other Black women who were expecting and also in distress. Eventually, she went to a local safety net hospital. She said the second hospital showed her love and support.
Unfortunately, her son didn’t make it.
The maltreatment she experienced in her first pregnancy inspired her to create the Jonah Bichotte Cowan Law (S8525A /A2770C), which requires hospitals to treat people in preterm labor and not send the patients away. It was signed into law by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2020. The law is named after the memory of her son, Jonah Bichotte Cowan.
This week, Mayor Eric Adams signed seven bills into laws that addressed racial disparities in maternal health, affecting Black women and birthing people on Tuesday. Speaker Adrienne Adams and other officials were present at the signing of the legislative package.
“For those who choose it, motherhood can be tough—physically, medically, psychologically. I’ve seen firsthand the resilience of mothers: my mother gave birth to six children,” said Mayor Adams in a statement. “Today, we are making sure all expecting families have access to health care when they need it most, no matter the color of their skin, their income bracket, or where they live.”
Speaker Adams said that the city is finally taking steps to acknowledge the horrifying lived experiences that have endangered too many lives with concrete policy actions. She said that maternal health is a “social justice issue” that is a matter of life or death for many women and birthing people in the city and country. She was proud that the historically diverse and women-majority City Council prioritized this issue to reduce the severe inequities faced by Black, Latino, and indigenous people in receiving equitable care.
The new bundle of laws establishes a public education program about “respectful care at birth” and a right to be free from pregnancy-related discrimination, improves access to data, expands doula training services, and requires a report on the prevalence of c-sections that may be tied to an increase in maternal mortality and severe morbidity.
“Birth equity is a social justice issue—and it’s one that’s especially urgent and deadly in New York City,” said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, who sponsored one of the bills. “This public health crisis is both under-acknowledged and under-addressed, but today, City Council will take invaluable and concrete steps to protect pregnant people in New York City.”
Williams also advocated for the federal government to pass and enact the Momnibus Act.
Bichotte Hermelyn said for her current pregnancy she has a doula to advocate for her and is happy about the new laws from the city council on maternal health.
Bichotte Hermelyn just got accepted into law school. In the near future, she plans on continuing her education, an externship, taking care of her newborn, and maintaining her legislative duties whenever there’s a session. She wants to take a mixture of virtual and in person classes, and have her husband, Edu Hermelyn in the Mayor’s Office, assist her with breastfeeding.
“We’re putting a whole system in place so I have a designated place where I can pump,” said Bichotte Hermelyn.
Organizations like MomsRising are raising awareness around ‘Black Breastfeeding Week’ to promote breastfeeding among hard working Black moms, who are least likely to breastfeed because of the demands of their jobs or affordability.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w