By Tara Law
November 15, 2019

Rep. Lauren Underwood said the United States must act with a “sense of urgency” to improve the prospects for young mothers—especially for African American women.

In her tribute speech at Thursday night’s TIME 100 Next event, the Illinois Democrat and registered nurse talked about a personal tragedy, the death of her friend, Dr. Shalon Irving from complications after the birth of a child three weeks after giving birth.

“Whether you are Allyson Felix, a world champion gold medal Olympian, a boss on the track and in real life. Whether you are Serena Williams, the greatest athlete of all time. Whether you are Beyoncé Knowles, the queen,” she said.

“These ladies have had near misses that they have been public about where they have pregnancy complications endangered not only the lives of their children but themselves.”

Underwood, who flipped Illinois’ traditionally Republican 14th Congressional District in 2018 urged lawmakers to “not just legislate, but save lives.”

Underwood rose to prominence for a campaign that positioned her as a defender of President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. Although many of the most visible young, female politicians who took office as part of the “pink wave” last year have commanded attention for pushing the Democratic party to the left, Underwood has distinguished herself as part of the party’s moderate wing, who may represent the future of Democratic efforts to take control of “purple” districts that are split between Republican and Democratic voters.

Underwood, a registered nurse who served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, leveraged public concern about healthcare to surpass six male Democratic challengers and a Republican incumbent to become the youngest African American woman to serve in Congress. During her campaign, she criticized her Republican opponent’s support for a bill that she said would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions, such as her own chronic heart condition.

However, while many Democratic 2020 presidential candidates—including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have advocated for a “Medicare for All” healthcare policy, Underwood has instead championed building upon the Affordable Care Act. She told CNN earlier this year that she feels that a government-run plan like Medicare for All raises questions about cost and coverage, and that she feels that it is important first to “stabilize” the Affordable Care Act and ensure that it is affordable.

Underwood has also equated gun control with her strong interest in healthcare. After a mass shooter murdered five people, including four of her constituents, at a manufacturing facility near her district this February, Underwood declared that that gun violence should also be considered a public health issue. She is a member of Congress’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and co-sponsored legislation which would have expanded federal background checks for gun purchases.

Write to Tara Law at tara.law@time.com.

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