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Childbirth is deadlier for Black families even when they’re rich, study finds

Feb. 18, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 18, 2023 at 8:01 p.m.

By Claire Cain Miller, Sarah Kliff and Larry Buchanan New York Times

In the United States, the richest mothers and their newborns are the most likely to survive the year after childbirth – except when the family is Black, according to a groundbreaking new study of 2 million California births. The richest Black mothers and their babies are twice as likely to die as the richest white mothers and their babies.

Research has repeatedly shown that Black mothers and babies have the worst childbirth outcomes in the United States. But this study is novel because it is the first of its size to show how the risks of childbirth vary by both race and parental income, and how Black families, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are disproportionately affected.

“This is a landmark paper, and what it makes really stark is how we are leaving one group of people way behind,” said Atheendar Venkataramani, a University of Pennsylvania economist who studies racial health disparities and was not involved in the research.

The study, published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, includes nearly all the infants born to first-time mothers from 2007 to 2016 in California, the state with the most annual births. For the first time, it combines income tax data with birth, death and hospitalization records and demographic data from the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, while protecting identities.

That approach also reveals that premature infants born to poor parents are more likely to die than those born into the richest families. Yet there is one group that doesn’t gain the same protection from being rich, the study finds: Black mothers and babies.

“It suggests that the well-documented Black-white gap in infant and maternal health that’s been discussed a lot in recent years is not just explained by differences in economic circumstances,” said Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist studying health policy at Stanford University and an author of the study. “It suggests it’s much more structural.”

If anything, the study’s findings understate the dangers of childbirth in much of the United States, a variety of researchers said, because California’s maternal mortality rate has been declining over the past decade, as deaths have gone up in the rest of the country.

Richest have riskiest births

Perhaps unexpectedly, babies born to the richest 20% of families are the least healthy, the study finds. They are more likely to be born premature and at a low birth weight, two key risk factors for medical complications early in life. This is because their mothers are more likely to be older and to have twins (which are more common with the use of fertility treatments), the researchers found.

But even with those early risk factors, these babies are the most likely to survive both their first month and first year of life.

A similar pattern emerged when it came to the health of the parents: Rich and poor mothers were equally likely to have high-risk pregnancies, but the poor mothers were three times as likely to die – even within the same hospitals. Rich women’s pregnancies “are not only the riskiest, but also the most protected,” the paper’s authors wrote.

This finding suggests that the American medical system has the ability to save many of the lives of babies with early health risks, but that those benefits can be out of reach for low-income families.

Resources outside the medical system also play a role. Separate research on children with leukemia, for example, has found that even when treated at the same hospital and using the same protocol, those from high-income families fared better than those from poorer families.

“It’s not just about the medical care that kids are receiving,” said Anna Aizer, a health economist at Brown University. “There are all sorts of other things that go into having healthy babies. If you’re a higher-income mom who can take time off work, who doesn’t have to worry about paying rent, it’s not surprising you’ll be able to manage any health complications better.”

‘It’s racism’

The researchers found that maternal mortality rates were just as high among the highest-income Black women as among low-income white women. Infant mortality rates between the two groups were also similar.

The babies born to the richest Black women (the top one-tenth of earners) tended to have more risk factors, including being born premature or underweight, than those born to the richest white mothers – and more than those born to the poorest white mothers.

“As a Black infant, you’re starting off with worse health, even those born into these wealthy families,” said Sarah Miller, a health economist at the University of Michigan. She was an author of the study with Rossin-Slater and Petra Persson of Stanford, Kate Kennedy-Moulton of Columbia University, Laura Wherry of New York University and Gloria Aldana of the Census Bureau.

Black mothers and babies had worse outcomes than those who were Hispanic, Asian or white in all the health measures the researchers looked at: whether babies were born early or underweight; whether mothers had birth-related health problems like eclampsia or sepsis; and whether the babies and mothers died. There was not enough data to look at other populations, including Native Americans, but other research has shown that they face adverse outcomes nearing those of Black women and infants in childbirth.

Even before the new paper, research found that Black women with the most resources, as measured by education and class mobility, did not benefit during childbirth the way white women did. The new study, although unable to prove exactly what causes poor outcomes for certain mothers and babies, demonstrates that disparities are not explained by income, age, marital status or country of birth. Rather, by showing that even rich Black mothers and babies have a disproportionately higher risk of death, the data suggests broader forces at play in the lives of Black mothers, Rossin-Slater said.

“It’s not race, it’s racism,” said Tiffany L. Green, an economist focused on public health and obstetrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “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.”

There is clear evidence that Black patients experience racism in health care settings. In childbirth, mothers are more likely to be given different access to interventions. Black infants are more likely to survive if their doctors are Black. The experience of tennis star Serena Williams – she had a pulmonary embolism after giving birth, yet said health care professionals did not address it at first – drew attention to how not even the most famous and wealthy Black women escape this pattern. But this data suggests the effects of racism on childbirth start long before people arrive at the hospital, researchers across disciplines say, and continue after they leave.

The stress of experiencing racism; air pollution in Black communities; and inequitable access to paid family leave, for example, have all been found to affect the health of mothers and babies.

“Even when it’s not about the direct disrespect that’s going on between the patient and the care provider, there are many ways systemic racism makes its way into the well-being of a pregnant or birthing person,” said Dr. Amanda P. Williams, the clinical innovation adviser at the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative.

California vs. Sweden

Many parts of the United States have much higher maternal mortality than California, and fewer policies to support families. California was the first state to offer paid family leave. It has one of the most generous public insurance programs for pregnant women. The state has invested in specific programs aimed at reducing maternal deaths and racial disparities in childbirth.

Yet even in this best-case American scenario, mothers and babies fare worse compared with another rich country the researchers examined: Sweden. At every income level, Swedish women have healthier babies. This held true for the highest-income Swedish women and those from disadvantaged populations, including low-income and immigrant mothers.

In the United States, earning more regularly translates into superior access to the fastest, most expensive health care. But even with that advantage, the richest white Californians in this study still gave birth to less healthy babies than the richest Swedish women.

Their newborns were more likely to be premature or underweight. The two groups had roughly equal maternal death rates.

“That finding really does strongly suggest that it’s something about the care model,” said Dr. Neel Shah, chief medical officer of Maven Clinic for women’s and family health in New York and a visiting scientist at Harvard Medical School. “We have the technology, but the model of prenatal care in the United States hasn’t really gotten an update in the last century.”

Sweden, like most European countries, has universal health insurance with low out-of-pocket costs for the patient. Midwives deliver most babies in Sweden and provide most of the prenatal care, which has been linked to lower C-section rates and lower rates of preterm births and low birth weights. Like California, Sweden has started targeted efforts to reduce maternal deaths. When officials there recognized that African immigrants giving birth were dying more frequently, they began piloting a “culture doula” program, with doulas who were immigrants themselves helping pregnant women navigate the country’s health system.

Local maternal health programs could begin to help reduce racial disparities in the United States, too, as could a more diverse medical workforce, research suggests. Nonprofits and universities have experimented with ways to address racism and poverty, with programs like cash transfers for low-income pregnant women and initiatives to improve the environments of Black communities.

By the time a woman is pregnant, Miller said, “it’s almost too late.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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