Racism Impacts Premature Birth Rates

by | Nov 6, 2021 | President Message

According to a recent study by the March of Dimes, in the United States, African American women have a higher rate of infant and maternal mortality than other women regardless of socioeconomic status.  In addition, a higher percentage of African American women give birth to infants born prematurely, who are at higher risk for breathing, heart, and brain abnormalities, among other complications, than any other ethnic group, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Despite numerous studies explaining the persistent disparities in our health care system, we continue to see the gaps linger and, in some cases, grow wider. 

The discrepancies in the way the medical community treats our Black mothers is a crime that our nation has yet to confront and thus adequately address.  These failures also give rise to alarming and costly health consequences, as infants born prematurely are at higher risk for breathing, heart, and brain abnormalities, among other complications.

The study called upon a group of geneticists, clinicians, epidemiologists, biomedical experts, and neurologists to examine more than two dozen suspected causes of preterm births — including quality of prenatal care, environmental toxins, chronic stress, poverty, and obesity. The resulting report determined that racism, directly or indirectly, best explained the racial disparities in preterm birth rates.

The cause of these tragic outcomes is unclear. Many studies have attributed these tragedies to the undue stress caused by the long-term, cumulative effects of racism experienced by Black mothers, which can influence many factors in determining the child’s health and the mother. Studies have shown us that chronic stress produces inflammation and immune system dysfunction, putting Black Mothers at higher risk of complications during pregnancy. 

While we must remove these traumas, we cannot wait for these changes to take place.  We must find a way to address the high rates of maternal and infant mortality today.  We can do this by ensuring that proper medical care and resources are available to all women regardless of socioeconomic status. We can do this by requiring every member of the medical profession–doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists–must treat every African American mother-to-be as a high-risk patient.  Failure to do so should be treated as medical malpractice.  We must continue to address the stress caused by systemic racism at the root of the problem. Still, until we right those wrongs, Black mothers and their children must be treated as high-risk patients regardless of their socioeconomic status.  We must demand that medical schools teach this to young doctors before they graduate, malpractice insurance companies must amend their policies to include this language in their contracts, and the courts must order this as the legal standard in the courtroom.

As we continue our fight for social equity and economic empowerment, we must also continue improving the social determinants of health in the communities we serve. Our environment shapes our behavior, and we can only make the choices that we have available to us – this includes access to healthy foods, affordable housing, education, walkable neighborhoods, and access to reasonable health care. We must work together.  Your support of the Los Angeles Urban League is critical in continuing our fight and forwarding our Movement for a better, healthier tomorrow.

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