photo of congresswoman Torres Small
Nov. 8, 2019: FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Rep. Torres Small (D-N.M.) visit Socorro General Hospital to discuss the connection between improved internet connectivity and health outcomes for new and expectant mothers living in remote areas.

The congresswoman backs several measures aimed not only at making life better for expecting and new moms, but also making sure they survive the process.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small’s parents met at New Mexico State University, her older brother was born in the state, and she grew up there.

But Torres Small was born in Portland — where there are more people, more hospitals, and more experienced doctors.

“There were some complications with my mom’s birth, and the Memorial Medical Center, which was the only hospital at the time, told her they didn’t have the facilities, the resources, to do that birth,” Torres Small explained to Courier Newsroom in an interview.

So her mom decided to travel north, where Torres Small’s grandparents were living, to deliver the future lawmaker there instead. They stayed there for a month before coming home to New Mexico. 

Thirty-five years later, not much has changed for moms in the southwest or many other rural areas of the country. If anything, life for expecting and new mothers in rural America has become more perilous.

“The United States is the only developed country…that actually has an increased rate of women who are getting seriously ill or dying during pregnancy or birth,” Torres Small said.

That’s why the freshman Democrat is laser focused on moving legislation to help expecting and new moms in rural America get the pre- and postnatal care they need. She’s working on many bills that aim to give kids a healthy first start and make fears of dying during childbirth a thing of the past.

Torres Small said she hears the stories all the time, including a recent conversation with a constituent who had to travel hours from southwest New Mexico to Texas to deliver her baby.

Indeed, American women are less likely to survive childbirth than women in Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and every country in Western Europe. U.S. deaths occurring from complications of pregnancy or childbirth increased by nearly 27 percent from 2000 to 2014.

While rising maternal death rates may be sounding the alarm bells, it’s rare. But Torres Small makes it clear there’s a lot more that goes into giving birth than just delivering a baby.

Ideally, pregnant women would have easy access to a doctor, midwife, and nurse practitioner well before her due date. They would work together, build trust, and execute an individualized care plan for the big day. Instead, Torres Small said hospital officials tell her all the time that women show up to the emergency room without having ever received any prenatal care.

Then there are the realities of postnatal life. 

“Imagine having a newborn and all of the stressful environment and no sleep that you have, and then you’ve got to drive to get postnatal care.”

More telemedicine could help, Torres Small said. “Even if you have to travel far for birth, at least you can get access to care before and after.”

That’s assuming, of course, that you survive the process.

“Moms are literally dying, and we don’t know why,” Torres Small said. Minorities and women in rural areas are disproportionately affected. Are those two trends connected? “We need [more] information to figure that out,” Torres Small said.

In one of many maternal health bills Torres Small has cosponsored, H.R. 4995 — which recently cleared a major procedural hurdle by passing a House committee — would make sure the government collects data about women who are getting sick or dying during pregnancy or births. The Maternal Health Quality Improvement Act also aims to reduce biases in caring for mothers of color (African-American women are four times more likely do die during child birth or pregnancy, for example) and to increase telemedicine for pre- and postnatal care. 

For Torres Small, its enactment would make the “the future of New Mexico a little bit brighter.”

But that bill is also only part of the puzzle. Another challenge is that because fewer babies are born in rural America, the doctors, residents, and other maternal care providers working there get less diversity in training and experience. So Torres Small has sponsored a separate bill, H.R. 4243, the Rural MOMS Act, to address that issue by improving support networks and training for rural doctors, too.

The congresswoman is working on a third bill, H.R. 2815, which could bring doctors of more diverse backgrounds to serve rural communities — the Training the Next Generation of Primary Care Doctors Act. The bill would lift the artificial cap on Medicare-sponsored medical residencies and strengthen the pipeline of medical residents to rural hospitals.

Of all her work on issues of maternal health this year, though, H.R. 4995 is the closest to becoming law. It passed the Energy and Commerce Committee with bipartisan support. “We’re now having conversations with leadership about getting it to the floor,” Torres Small said, adding she’s optimistic about its chances in the Senate, too.

But, like giving birth in rural America, “getting floor time is challenging.”