More babies in the US are being born prematurely—a trend that’s linked to the state of racial inequality in America today.
In 2017, the number of babies born earlier than 37 weeks rose for the third year in a row, according to this year’s data from the National Center for Health Statistics. About 9.93% of babies in 2017 were born prematurely, up from 9.85% in 2016. That’s bad news for parents and their babies. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant mortality in the US, and can cause long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities in children, as well as lung and respiratory problems, autism, and dental, auditory, and vision problems.
Those problems are not evenly distributed across racial categories. While the preterm birth rate for white women was 9.06% in 2017, it was 13.92% for black women and 9.61% for Hispanic women.
“This is a disturbing trend we are all deeply concerned about,” Lisa Waddell, senior vice president for maternal child health and neonatal intensive care unit innovation at the March of Dimes organization, tells Quartz. “We are seeing these disparities happening among women of color … and we don’t know exactly why that is happening. What we do know is that there are systemic issues that we need to work hard to address.”
While researchers don’t know exactly why premature births are more likely for black and Hispanic women, Waddell had some ideas—and they all start with the link between chronic stressors like poverty, deep anxiety, or emotional and physical abuse, and the likelihood of preterm birth. Waddell wrote in an email that the higher preterm birth rates for women of color might be related to people in this group “experiencing chronic stress due to underlying racism and discrimination.” This, she wrote, can take several forms, including “stress due to housing concerns, worries about job … lack of transportation to access care, [and] stress due to not being heard/listened to.”
The health problems associated with premature births can be incredibly expensive—an issue that’s also likely to disproportionately affect women of color. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, white households were about 13 times more wealthy than black households in terms of their median net worth, and 10 times more wealthy than Hispanic households.
Wadell says the report underscores the importance of ensuring that poorer women of color have access to high-quality health care—both during and after pregnancy. In addition, she notes, medical professionals should take extra care to listen to black and Hispanic women, whose concerns about their pregnancies are often dismissed. Once women of color get into care, Wadell asks, “are their voices being heard?”
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.