Pre-term labor bill penned in memory of pol’s son looks to end mistreatment of Black women

pre-term labor
Flatbush Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte introduced a bill requiring hospitals to admit women in premature labor after her suffering a devastating experience with her late son, Jonah Bichotte Cowan.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

A new maternal health bill expected to be signed by the governor would require all hospitals to care for women in pre-term labor, a life-saving practice that many Black women are systemically denied — including the bill’s sponsor. 

“I went to the top doctors, I went to a top medical hospital, and still I was treated awful. I was treated awful throughout the whole journey,” said Rodneyse Bichotte, a Flatbush assemblywoman who lost her newborn baby in 2016 days after being denied pre-term labor care. “This bill hopefully will wake everybody up and really address the disparities in Black maternal care and Black infant care.” 

Bichotte went into labor five-and-a-half months into her pregnancy in 2016, but her doctors at NewYork Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Hospital refused to admit her, claiming that her insurance would not cover her pre-term labor care, she said. 

“The doctor and the resident at Columbia Medical Center said that because of hospital policies, there was no room for me if I wish not to terminate my child,” Bichotte said in an emotional speech to the state Assembly in July. “They also indicated that I needed to leave because they needed the room for another patient.” 

Doctors at the Manhattan hospital also dismissed Bichotte’s pain when she arrived with the life-threatening complication, and did not believe she was in premature labor until an exam revealed that she was three-and-a-half centimeters dilated, she told Brooklyn Paper. 

“They said, ‘The baby’s fine.’ So then they checked, and that’s when they saw they said I was dilating,” she said.

In need of urgent care, Bichotte was admitted to Wyckoff Hospital in Bushwick that same day. Seven days later, she gave birth to her son, Jonah Bichotte Cowan, who died within hours of his birth.

Bichotte’s experience at Columbia Hospital is not uncommon among Black women, who suffer disproportionately from pregnancy complications and are eight to 12 times more likely than white women to die in childbirth in New York City. Even college-educated Black women like Bichotte are more likely to suffer near-fatal births than non-Black women without a college degree, a 2016 study found

Central to the mistreatment of Black women is a lack of empathy, Bichotte said. Months before she lost Jonah, Bichotte lost his twin. The traumatic experience hardly inspired any sympathy in her Columbia Hospital doctors, she said. 

“Sometimes there’s no sympathy … There was no time for anybody to talk to me, no time for anybody to cry,” she said. “They said, ‘Keep it moving.'”

Bichotte, who also heads the Brooklyn Democratic Party, initially introduced the bill, dubbed the Jonah Bichotte Cowan law, in 2018. She pushed for its passage recently in light of the deaths of black women Sha-Asia Washington and Amber Isaac, she said.

“This is why I have created this supporting legislation which would finally level the playing field so that all mothers can enjoy the experience of pregnancy and birth of their children,” she told the Assembly.

The law, which mandates that doctors monitor women in pre-term labor and provide them with information about the health effects, sailed through the state Assembly and Senate in July, and will likely be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.