Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
Pregnant people in New York City could get new protections in the workplace and while receiving care, under bills soon to be considered by the City Council.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will introduce legislation on Thursday that seeks to empower parents-to-be in New York City to know their rights at health care facilities, including the right to deny care or procedures, according to a spokesperson.
The package of three bills emerged from months of conversations with birth justice advocates — including Bruce McIntyre III, the partner of Amber Rose Isaac, who died during delivery in April 2020.
One measure would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with the NYC Commission on Human Rights and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, to create a public information campaign about pregnant people’s rights to respectful health care and reasonable accommodation in the workplace.
Another would require employers to hold a meeting with workers who are returning from parental leave, with the goal of “improving the reintegration process,” with CCHR as the watchdog, according to the bill summary reviewed by THE CITY.
A separate resolution urges Congress to pass the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 which, among other things, would expand funding for community-based organizations working to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women.
“The challenges and inequities of maternal health persist throughout and post-pregnancy, and we just address it at all stages. On a federal level, we need aggressive funding and research to combat this disparity and save lives — but localities can lead the way,” Williams said in a statement.
“Through the creation of a maternal health bill of rights with dedicated and sustained outreach to inform people of those rights, we can help ensure that rights are respected, requests heard, and resources granted. And when someone is ready to return to work, we need to make that pathway clear and minimize barriers to reentry.”
‘Educated and Informed Decision’
While only the state has the legal authority to regulate the health care industry and hold hospitals and providers accountable, birth justice advocates hope that the bill will empower the city’s pregnant people and their families to play a more active role in the birth process.
Chanel Porcia-Albert, a doula and a commissioner of the city’s Commission on Gender Equity, says that it’s especially crucial for Black women, who are eight times more likely than white women to die during childbirth in New York, to know their options.
“The goal is that they’re able to make an educated and informed decision about their care, regardless of what the outcome is,” she said, and to speak up for their needs.
“If I want an epidural, I should get that,” she added, referencing a painkilling injection frequently administered at childbirth. “But if I want to have a non-medicated vaginal delivery, where I want to be able to walk around, I should be able to have that. I should be able to know what my options are about having a midwife, and being able to have that person take care of me throughout my care.”
McIntyre told THE CITY he hopes the Council can help other families avoid the same fate he and Isaac suffered last year, when she died moments after giving birth to their son, Elias, at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx.
As THE CITY reported at the time, Isaac was acutely aware of the disparities affecting Black mothers in New York and feared she would not survive her delivery.
Like many families during the early days of the pandemic, the couple looked to hire midwifery services when the state locked down hospitals to visitors, including birth partners. The midwife, Nubia Martin, declined to take them on as clients because Isaac’s pregnancy was considered high-risk — which came as news to the couple.
McIntyre told THE CITY Wednesday that he believes that the bill will help other women and pregnant people to speak up when problems arise during pregnancy — and that he wished he and Isaac had known the full extent of their options, too.
If she had known her rights and spoken up to doctors, he said, “I believe that they would have listened to Amber and her time of need, that she would have at least got the standard of care. I do believe if we had legislation like this, Amber would be alive.”
How to Spot Red Flags
Isaac hadn’t gone for an in-person visit with her doctor since February because of the pandemic, even though her platelet levels were low.
The 26-year-old was induced a month before her due date and learned that day that she had HELLP syndrome, a set of symptoms that can complicate a pregnancy. She died moments after delivering her son, who was born healthy, on April 21.
Days before she died, Isaac tweeted that she wanted to write a “tell all” about the “incompetent doctors at Montefiore.”
Montefiore has highlighted its low maternal mortality rate and stated: “Any maternal death is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to Ms. Isaac’s family.”
A December 2020 study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that hemorrhage was the leading cause in maternal deaths in New York City. The task force behind that study released a series of recommendations that same month.
That same study found that the severity of symptoms that lead to overall childbirth deaths in the city could have been reduced by implementing “improvements in clinical risk assessment and decision-making by providers; adoption of facility-level policies to adhere to gold-standard clinical protocols and care coordination; and earlier patient entry into prenatal care.”
McIntyre said he believes that Williams’ bills will help other women and pregnant people to speak up, both while receiving care and in the workplace, when problems arise during pregnancy.
Isaac, he noted, was also denied early medical leave from work at a Harlem day care center months before her due date even though she was experiencing chronic fatigue.
“I do believe that this would help educate families so that they know what to go in asking for, the correct questions that they should be asking, the red flags they should be looking for, the things that they should or should not do,” he said.
While the proposals could help families be better equipped to advocate for themselves, Porcia-Albert noted the city is limited in its ability to hold health care providers and bad actors accountable. Only the state, which doles out medical licenses, can.
But she said families advocating for themselves can lead to increased accountability.
“It’s community that informs legislation, not the other way around. All of these things are blueprints for what equity, true equity, and accountability looks like,” Porchia-Albert said. “And that’s what people really want.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.