Blessed are the children

Jesse Jackson | 4/19/2023, 4:29 p.m.
Blessed are the children – this is the teaching of every religion. The miracle of birth and the joy of …
Jesse Jackson

Blessed are the children – this is the teaching of every religion. The miracle of birth and the joy of new life are transcendent. In this rich country, however, too many babies and too many mothers are at risk – and far too many are dying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that new mothers in America are dying at a higher rate than those in any other industrial country. A higher percentage of children die before their first birthday in the U.S. than in any other industrial country.

In families, whether rich or poor, mothers and the newborn are precious. Yet, stark disparities mark their prospects. A study of births in California shows that out of 100,000 births, 173 born to the richest white women will die before their first birthday, a rate far higher than other wealthy countries. Twice that number – 350 babies – will die if born to the poorest white women. Stunningly, 437 die if born to the richest Black women. And a staggering 653 of 100,000, die if born to the poorest Black mothers.

Clearly there are two sets of rules. One for the rich – and another for the poor. One for white mothers and babies - and another for Black mothers and babies. We don’t allow football or basketball teams to play with two sets of rules. All compete with the same rules on an even playing field. But that same basic fairness doesn’t apply to mothers and their babies.

This disparity is not because a greater portion of Black women are poor. The baby of a Black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than that of a white woman who hasn’t finished high school.

Why are Black women and babies at greater risk than white women and their babies? The answer is apparent. As Dr. Jana Richards of UChicago Medicine writes, “the most straightforward answer is racism. The root causes of disproportionate pregnancy complications in Black women are driven by inequality, discrimination and long-standing racism deeply rooted in the U.S. healthcare system.”

Even as some right-wing politicians – like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – deny the very existence of systemic racism – and want to ban discussion of it in our schools and universities, it punches us in the gut.

“It’s not race, it’s racism,” said Tiffany L. Green, a University of Wisconsin economist specializing in public health and obstetrics. “The data are quite clear that this isn’t about biology. This is about the environments where we live, where we work, where we play, where we sleep.”

Black mothers struggle with far greater stress – from low wages, food and housing insecurity, unemployment, far less access to health care and childcare, greater exposure to poisonous air and water pollution. Too few states guarantee paid leave, child supplements, adequate transportation to health care. Even more affluent

Black women struggle to get equal treatment. It isn’t an accident that deaths of

babies and mothers from pregnancy decline when a Black woman has a Black doctor and nurse.

In declaring April 11 to 17 Black Maternal Health Week, President Biden issued an “urgent call to action,” since Black women are “three times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women," and this is in addition to the fact that “women in America are dying at a higher rate from pregnancy-related causes than in any other developed nation.”

The president has pushed to address the problem. His rescue plan extended Medicaid postpartum coverage for a full year, and he’s pledged to sustain that in states that accept extended Medicaid coverage. His new budget has more than $400 million targeted to reduce mortality rates – seeking to improve access to care in rural and urban communities, support the health workforce that deals with pregnancy, and even expand implicit bias training for health care providers. Sadly, the Republican majority in the House has called his proposals “dead on arrival,” blind to the meaning of that to babies.

During the pandemic, the rescue plans by Donald Trump and Joe Biden gave an indication of what is possible. Poor and low-wage families actually fared better during the economic shutdown. Evictions were banned, paid leave required, Medicaid coverage extended, supplemental food and school meal programs were passed. The child tax credit reduced child poverty by one-third; the stimulus and boosted unemployment payments sustained incomes. A record high percentage of Americans had health care coverage. If extended – and combined with greater focus on pregnancy and early childhood care – these programs could have dramatically reduced the rate at which mothers and babies are dying in America.

But while most Americans support the programs, conservatives in the Congress in both parties do not. So, the eviction ban expired, as have the increased unemployment benefits, the income supplements, the extended Medicaid coverage, and sadly the child tax credits, and more. The Congress as presently constituted stands in the way of saving the lives of mothers and babies.

There is no excuse for this wealthy country to put the lives of mothers and babies at greater risk. We cannot let racism or ideology or greed keep us from ensuring that mothers and infants get the care that they need. That surely is a measure of a civilized society.

You can write to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in care of this newspaper or by email at Follow him on Twitter @RevJJackson.