RELEASE: CAP Brief Says Racial Inequality Contributes to Racial Gap in Maternal and Infant Mortality Rates

Washington, D.C. — The United States holds the worst records for maternal and infant mortality in the developed world, according to a new Center for American Progress issue brief. The brief reveals that higher maternal and infant mortality rates among African American women drive the mortality crisis in the United States. Indeed, African American mothers die at three to four times the rate of non-Hispanic white women due pregnancy-related issues, and infants born to African American mothers die at twice the rate as infants born to non-Hispanic white women. Critically, these trends hold across education levels and socioeconomic status.

The report shows that greater exposure to maternal risk factors such as poverty and low socioeconomic status; limited access to prenatal care; and poor physical and mental health around the time of pregnancy does not fully account for African Americans’ higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. The authors explain that, given the United States’ climate of racial inequality, African American women are more likely to experience stress throughout their lifetimes, which increases their risk of maternal and infant mortality. At the same time, health care institutions and inadequate bias training in that workforce deepens these racial disparities.

“This report illuminates a devastating problem in the United States,” said Cristina Novoa, a policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at CAP. “We see that neither education nor income, access to prenatal care nor healthy habits during pregnancy, are enough to protect the African American women and infants. The lives of African American women and infants depend on our ability to address the racial discrimination that drives disparities in infant and maternal health through public policy and program solutions. We can—and we must.”

“It’s no surprise that institutional racism contributes to the racial disparity in both maternal and infant mortality,” said Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow for the Women’s Initiative at CAP. “Real change will require greater political will to undo the legacy of racism in the United States. Our policymakers should be doing everything in their power to spare African American women from the harmful effects of American racial inequality to have better maternal health outcomes. And collectively, the policy and program solutions developed to address this critical issue must center the lived experiences of African American women and families.”

The report suggests that the following research gaps need to be addressed to develop prevention efforts and quality improvement programs:

  • Conduct research that substantiates the connections between a mother’s health before, during, and between pregnancies as well as that of her child across the life course.
  • Conduct comprehensive, nationwide data collection on maternal deaths and complications—with data disaggregated by race, geography, and socioeconomic status.
  • Produce data sets that include information on social and environmental risk factors for women and infants of color.
  • Conduct better assessments and analysis on the impact of overt and covert racism on toxic stress and pregnancy-related outcomes for women and infants of color.
  • Conduct research to identify best practices and effective interventions for improving the quality and safety of maternity care.
  • Conduct research to identify best practices and effective interventions, as well as health outcomes before and during pregnancy, in order to address predisease pathways of adverse maternal and infant health.
  • Conduct research to identify effective interventions for addressing social determinants of health disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes.

Click here to read Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates” by Cristina Novoa and Jamila Taylor

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For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, please contact Rafael J. Medina at rjmedina@americanprogress.org or 202-748-5313.