The prevailing socio-economic disparities between black and white women in modern America evidently affect more than crime rates, yearly income, and education level; they also extend to infant mortality rates and childbirth deaths.
Indeed, black infants and mothers are over twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than their white counterparts, according to the most recent government data. The tragedy of infant mortality rates is espoused closely with the alarming crisis of the death of black women during or shortly after delivery.
In fact, the United States is now ranked 32nd, out of the 35 wealthiest countries, in infant mortality rates, and is currently one of 13 countries where the rate of maternal mortality has increased, not decreased, in the last 25 years.
Yet, these disarming statistics detail an epidemic strictly involving only one half of the female population in America. The U.S. boasts some of the most sophisticated medical care in the world, not to mention it spends more money on health care than any other nation, but African American women giving birth in America have worse odds of celebrating their baby’s first birthday than some mothers in underdeveloped, third world countries.
At first, these extraordinarily high infant mortality rates were accredited to a multitude of underlying reasons, including poor nutrition, lack of access to adequate medical resources and care, insufficiency of money, tendency to smoke and drink, or prevalence of health issues including obesity and diabetes.
All aforementioned issues affect black women at higher rates than white women, and were believed to be the leading causes behind the disproportionate discrepancy in infant and maternal mortality rates between black and white women.
In the early 1980s, however, the U.S. reformed its medical care system, particularly focusing on prenatal care so as to prevent possible future complications. In general, women across the U.S. received more care but mortality rates did not go down.
Doctors and specialists then began to attribute the disparity to genetic differences. Researchers began to believe that a black woman with the best medical care in the U.S. was more likely to give birth to an underweight infant than a white woman with absolutely zero prenatal care because of a “preterm birth gene.”
Ultimately, the hypothesis was disproved. Science proves that genetic variations don’t depend solely on racial background or ethnic heritage. Moreover, if a “preterm birth gene” did exist, it would also affect black women in other countries, not only the U.S. Yet, this wasn’t the case.
On the contrary, a growing amount of evidence points to social issues instead of scientific alternatives as being the culprit for this medical catastrophe. Now, the persistent racial differences in maternal and infant health are found to be linked to the stresses of discrimination endured by black women in a race-conscious society. Indeed, it’s not race that is a determining factor in mortality rates among black women and infants, but rather racial discrimination.
Though the idea seems extremely radical and, scientifically speaking, almost impossible, research indicates that the lived experiences of black women can have harmful effects on their pregnancy. In 2007, Richard David and James Collin, two neonatologists from Chicago, published a paper in The American Journal of Public health, discussing a correlation between racism-induced stress and high mortality rates for black infants and delivering mothers.
Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, further explains the relationship between discrimination and the crisis of black infant deaths in an article in The Nation published on Feb. 15, 2017. Evidence suggests that decades of living with systemic racism as a black women in the U.S. can result in chronic stress, which can irreversibly alter the female body’s biological ability to give birth.
In other words, the racial divide in maternal and infant healths could be linked to the unseen, yet axiomatic, consequences of years of enduring racism. As Kriegler puts it, “We literally embody, biologically, the societal and ecological conditions in which we grow up and develop and live.”
It’s not until we begin to change the way we think and perceive others and actively fight against all internal stereotypes and biases, that we can decrease mortality rates among black mothers and infants.