Top NY Health Dept. Official Refers To White ‘Birthing People’ But Black, Puerto Rican ‘Mothers’

Health Dept. later apologizes for “inadvertently gendering Black and Puerto Rican birthing people.”
Midsection of Pregnant Woman Holding Her Belly
Oscar Wong/GettyImages

After the chief medical officer at the New York City Department of Health issued a tweet in which she called white mothers “birthing people” while referring to black and Puerto Rican women as simply “mothers” — triggering condemnation on social media from those angry that white mothers had been denigrated — the Department of Health headed in the other direction, apologizing for “inadvertently gendering Black and Puerto Rican birthing people.”

Dr. Michelle Morse, the chief medical officer at the New York City Department of Health, was commenting on New York’s “birth equity” initiative to expand the “citywide doula program and midwifery” when she issued her Twitter thread, in which she stated:

Today @nycHealthy  and  @NYCMayorsOffice announced an expansion of our citywide doula program and midwifery initiative to reduce maternal and infant health inequities. The time for birth equity is NOW. Too many NYC families experience life-threatening complications from childbirth, and even loss of life of the birthing person or their child. We must hold ourselves and health care delivery organizations accountable to our anti-racism mission and make health equity a realty. (sic)

“For too long, barriers stood between doulas and the families who would benefit most from their support,” she continued. “We need to support birthing people through all aspects of their birthing experience – perhaps the most beautiful and personal gift we can share with birthing people as they navigate the groundbreaking life changing experience of creating life. That is what doulas do.”

Then came the tweet that drew attention: “The urgency of this moment is clear. Mortality rates of birthing people are too high, and babies born to Black and Puerto Rican mothers in this city are three times more likely to die in their first year of life than babies born to non-Hispanic White birthing people.”

The New York Post, which reported several tweets highly critical of Morse’s comment regarding white mothers, pointed out:

Morse is no stranger to controversy over race, particularly after she advocated for a “proactively antiracist agenda for medicine” in a 2021 article with Dr. Bram Wispelwey, a former colleague at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The article has been described as akin to a critical race theory model for medical care. The doctors, in one example, said the hospital’s black and Latino heart failure patients should be given preferential admission to a speciality cardiac unit as a “corrective” measure to a practice that for years had them more likely go to general ward.

The article stated:

… we have taken redress in our particular initiative to mean providing precisely what was denied for at least a decade: a preferential admission option for Black and Latinx heart failure patients to our specialty cardiology service. The Healing ARC will include a flag in our electronic medical record and admissions system suggesting that providers admit Black and Latinx heart failure patients to cardiology, rather than rely on provider discretion or patient self-advocacy to determine whether they should go to cardiology or general medicine. We will be analyzing the approach closely for the first year to see how well it works in generating equitable admissions. If it does, there will be good reason to continue the practice as a proven implementation measure to achieve equity.

Offering preferential care based on race or ethnicity may elicit legal challenges from our system of colorblind law. But given the ample current evidence that our health, judicial, and other systems already unfairly preference people who are white, we believe—following the ethical framework of Zack and others—that our approach is corrective and therefore mandated.