Racism Increases Premature Births in America — the Data Is Now in to Prove that Point
October 29, 2018
We have important new information about the impact of racism on the preterm birth rates in our country.
We have a very high number of preterm births compared to other countries — and those numbers are getting worse. The percentage of preterm births in this country has just gone up for the second year in a row.
More than 130 other countries have lower preterm birth rates than we do and the fact that children are being born prematurely is one of the reasons our infant mortality rates are also among the worst levels in the world.
We have the highest number of babies who die the day they are born of any country in the industrialized world.
By contrast, the preterm birth rates in the most successful countries last year for that birth outcome were 5.5 percent of births in Ireland, 5.6 percent of births in Finland, and 6 percent of all births in Greece.
So we know from their success levels that significantly lower premature birth rates are both possible and affordable— because we know that countries who spend a lot less money than we spend per capita on health care are currently achieving those lower and better rates.
That is not a new situation for us to be in. We have known for years that we have some of the worst preterm birth rates in the world — and we also have known that our disproportionately high levels of premature births are not distributed equally across all groups of mothers in our country.
We need to recognize the fact that we have major differences between groups of mothers in our premature birth rates.
The prematurity rate is now slightly below 9 percent for our births for our white mothers — a number that was far from the best level in the world — but the prematurity rate is even higher for our African American mothers.
Last year, more than 14 percent of births to African American mothers were premature.
We have been aware for a long time that those differences between those groups exist. But we have not understood why that difference is happening.
People have studied those differences ever since they were first measured, but we unfortunately have not had good information from researchers, scientists, or caregivers that have helped us understand both why we have so many preterm births overall and why there are such significant differences between groups of mothers in our premature birth rates.
Multiple theories have been proposed about those issues and a number of studies have been done — but there has not been a good set of answers that have explained the problem or explained the differences in results between groups.
Several of the studies looked at the relationship between the education levels of the mothers and the income levels of the mothers and the rate of preterm births for each group of mothers.
The researchers in each setting who looked at that information found that was a good relationship to measure because there actually are major and very significant differences in the rates of preterm birth inside each group in each setting that could be tied to education and income levels.
The finding that deeply puzzled people who looked at that particular issue was, however, that those factors had exactly opposite impacts on different group of mothers.
For most groups, higher education levels reduced preterm birth rates.
Several studies showed that high school graduates and college educated white and Asian American and Hispanic mothers had significantly lower premature birth rates than high school drop outs from each of those groups.
But for our African American mothers, however, several somewhat confusing and counter intuitive but very consistent studies have shown that the premature birth rate actually increased with higher education levels and with higher income levels for African American mothers.
Duke University just did a very powerful analysis of education impact by group on preterm birth that reinforces those earlier studies.
Their researchers reported that same confusing difference in the rate of preterm birth and education levels that other studies had shown — and Duke added to the science and to our understanding of the issue by adding layers of data relative to the specific education level for the mothers to their report categories.
They added graduate degrees for the mothers to their analysis.
When the researchers at Duke looked at birth rates and education levels of mothers, they found that the premature birth rate for white mothers with an eighth grade or lower education level was 12 percent of births. As expected from other studies, they reported that the prematurity number dropped to 5 percent of births when the white mothers had a master’s degree.
That number dropped even further to only 3 percent of births when the white mothers had a Ph.D. or equivalent education level.
So the Duke data for white mothers showed clearly that higher levels of education actually had a significant and positive reduction impact on the rate of preterm birth for those mothers.
Their research then also confirmed other studies that had also found the exact opposite impact on the rate of preterm birth for African American Mothers.
Education levels increased the rate of preterm birth percentages in each of those categories for that set of African American mothers studied by Duke.
The Duke researchers reported that the African American mothers with an eighth-grade education had a 15 percent preterm birth rate —a number that looks very much like the current national average for African American mothers.
However, they discovered that when the African American mothers had a master’s degree, the number of preterm births actually increased to 19 percent.
In a very powerful and extremely useful piece of research, the Duke team also discovered and reported that when the African American mothers had a Ph.D. or equivalent degree, that premature birth number for those mothers jumped to 28 percent of births.
The impact of having a graduate degree or Ph.D. had a massively different impact for preterm birth rates for each set of mothers studied by Duke. That is important information for us to have and it isn’t information that people have been building into their thought processes for either premature birth or education issues before now.
The Duke researchers who reported those differences theorized that some elements of racism were probably relevant to those major differences in birth outcomes for those sets of mothers. They speculated that various kinds of stress related to racism might somehow have caused those very different results and their team speculated very logically and insightfully that the personal stress levels relative to racism might somehow and sometimes be higher when African American women have higher degrees.
California Study of Stress During Pregnancy Proves a Direct Racism Link
That theory that stress related to racism might be related to the preterm birth rate has just been significantly and powerfully reinforced by an important new California study that looked at multiple causes of stress during pregnancy. Those researchers came up with extremely useful and directly confirming and affirming data on that issue that reinforces all of the prior studies that have shown differences between those groups of mothers in those rates.
The new California research looked specifically at multiple levels and types of stress in California mothers. Their study discovered and diliniated information about specific areas of stress that helps explain both those links and those very different outcomes.
The new California study found the same inverse differences in the rate of preterm births for African American women and white women relative to their personal education levels and income.
African American mothers in California with higher education levels were more likely to give birth prematurely, and white mothers in California with higher education levels were less likely to give birth prematurely than white women with lower levels of education.
The California research also went beyond earlier studies about those topics and the researchers looked at the impact of specific stress factors for each set of women. That look at specific stress factors was an extremely useful thing to study.
The attached research that investigated those issues and reported those findings was presented to The California First Five Commission for Children and Families at their July, 2018 meeting. The First Five Commission was created by the voters of California in an initiative, and it receives funding to help children and families get the best starts for health, education, and success.
The California Commission is looking at the impact of stress during pregnancy as a factor that can influence success levels for children in the first five years of life.
That extremely important research looked at more than 10,000 births in California in one year., It identified multiple key factors about the mothers who gave birth during that time frame.
The basic overall study is done every year, and it contains rich veins of information about California births.
What made the study different and extremely useful this year is that the researchers looked at explicit stress factors for mothers for the first time.
The researchers knew from multiple other medical studies that have been done for a very long time that there is a direct link between maternal stress and premature birth rates for well-known and well understood biological reasons but there was no good research up to this point that identified in any direct or explicit way which kinds of stress during a pregnancy had the most impact on mothers relative to giving birth prematurely.
Medical science and medical practitioners have known for a number of years that higher stress levels during pregnancy increase prematurity rates — but what researchers did not know was exactly which stress factors were most relevant to higher levels of premature births.
The California research team did very important, innovative, useful and insightful work on that issue.
The researchers identified a dozen key stress factors for the mothers.
They gathered data about the age, and income and education levels of the mothers. Then they identified very specific stress factors like loss of jobs, income stress, food shortages, multiple health conditions, domestic partner violence during pregnancy, divorce, separation during the pregnancy, binge drinking, smoking levels and whether the mothers worried about the impact of racism on them or their family.
The study of all of those births produced by that research is attached. That study has extremely useful information about the extent of each and all of those stress factors on the mothers.
The research team looked at all of the premature births and did statistical analysis to see which stress factors, either alone or in combination with other specific factors, actually increased the likelihood of premature birth for the California mothers.
Their numbers and the linkages they discovered to the stress factors tell a powerful story.
In looking at the overall rate of preterm birth, the study found that 5.8 percent of the white mothers studied in that year gave birth prematurely. They discovered that 9.2 percent of African American mothers in California gave birth prematurely.
The researchers gathered information about causes of stress and then looked to see which of those dozen explicit risk factors had the biggest impact on the premature birth rate for African American mothers.
They did not expect the relative force and major impact of one of those stress factors on the study and on the rate of premature birth for those mothers.
Racism very clearly had the biggest impact on the rate of premature birth for the mothers in the California study.
The African American mothers who reported worry about the impact of racism were far more likely to give birth prematurely.
Racism Stress Significantly Increased Preterm Births
Slightly more than a third — 39 percent — of the African American mothers reported that concern about racism for them or their family in the survey. The mothers who expressed that concern about the impact of racism were more than twice as likely to have a premature birth as white mothers in California.
For those mothers who reported that worry, 12.5 percent gave birth prematurely.
As the study done by the researchers at Duke had also reported, increased premature birth rates for the mothers with that worry were highest for the African
American California mothers with the highest education and highest income levels.
That previously confusing piece of data about higher income levels resulting in higher prematurity rates for African American now has a very important medical research relevancy context that helps explain it. We now know from that study that the African American mothers with higher education levels and higher income were significantly more likely to worry about racism for themselves and their family — and the increased level of stress created did exactly what researchers have known for years results from stress experienced by a mother during pregnancy.
That very damaging impact from the worry about racism is important to know. .
The numbers are both important and significant.
We now know that, overall, 12.5 percent of the African American mothers in California who reported having that worry about the impact of racism had a premature birth.
That compared to a 7.2 percent premature birth rate for the African American mothers in California who did not report that concern for the survey.
That 12.5 percent compares to a 5.8 percent premature birth rate for the white mothers in the study.
Those mothers with that Racism worry were more than twice as likely to give birth prematurely.
The 7.2 percent number for those African American mothers in the survey who did not indicate that racism worry is also still significantly higher than the 5.8 percent of white mothers in California who gave birth prematurely. All of the other stress factors were relevant to those African American mothers as well, and they are 24 percent more likely to have a premature birth than white mothers in California.
But 7.2 percent is significantly lower than the 12.5 percent premature birth levels for the mothers who indicated that worry about racism in their survey results. Those mothers with that worry are more than twice as likely to have a premature birth and the ones with the highest levels of both income and education were significantly more than twice as likely to have an early birth.
We need far more research to drill down into those findings at multiple levels. That information about those birth outcomes is just the tip of an iceberg of relationships and realities that we need to understand. More research, analysis and expert thinking needs to be done to understand that situation more completely.
But that particular number tied to that concern in this study is extremely important information for us to have because it shows that racism has a direct and powerful impact on the premature birth rates in this country, and it is clear that we definitely need to use that information about that impact in some useful ways simply because we now know it.
Important knowledge can create its own obligation level and its own ethical requirement for use by people who learn it when the information is truly important.
There has been some very good work done on the issues of racism and pregnancy damage.
Danyelle Solomon wrote a very powerful piece for the Center for American Progress on racism and births that very clearly described many of those same issues and reported that strange unexpected relationship between higher income levels and higher rates of preterm birth for African American mothers. Solomon did not have that final link from the brand new California Research that tied premature births to having that concern about racism in a measurable way — but she wrote a very useful piece about why that concern could, might and should exist and she was correct in her assessment.
The University of Michigan just released a major study that also looked at birth related problems for African American women that goes beyond preterm birth rates into other related health issues and deals very directly with some important disparities in the delivery of care.
All of those studies are important — and the information about the stress damage caused by the Racism concerns are very high on the list of things we need to understand and address as a country.
Now that we understand this information about the impact of those concerns, we have an ethical, logistical, moral, and functional obligation to use that information in beneficial ways.
Knowledge is power and knowledge about relevant information directly triggers accountability. We need people who are working on issues of premature birth to understand this information and these processes and to be able to factor it into their thinking about this entire set of issues and processes.
We Need Every Pregnant African American Woman with a Ph.D. to Understand Those Findings Now
We particularly need to use and share this information about the impact of those particular concerns immediately with every African American woman with a master’s degree or a Ph.D. or a law degree or equivalent education level who is expecting a child or planning to have a child.
If nothing else, we need to have people who care give a respectful and loving hug equivalent and level of support to each pregnant African American woman to help reduce their current levels of stress at this exact highly relevant point in time for each mother.
We very obviously need every African American woman in this country with a master’s degree or Ph.D. who plans to have a child to know that information about that impact and those outcomes immediately.
Sharing that information with every African American woman with a Ph.D. or a master’s degree should be possible for us to do if we each take that obligation seriously because the Internet can reach everyone and we all need to be personally accountable to extend that information to every relevant person in every way that we can reach that set of women as soon as possible.
We can’t end racism or make it less threatening and damaging—but we can mitigate and work to reduce stress for individual people in direct and caring ways at important key points in time that can help increase the likelihood of a full term birth for those mothers.
The next question that we need to deal with is — so what do we do with that entire set of information about the impact of racism on births once we know it?
We Need to Share that Information with the People who Are Most Damaged by that Stress
We need care givers and family members and friends, and community members all to be sympathetic and supportive and to do a wide range of things to help reduce the stress levels for African American expectant mothers with a particular immediate focus on the mothers who are most affected by this information.
We unfortunately are unable to end or eliminate racism. Racism is a problem for us as a country that we need to address at multiple levels.
We are and have been a racist country at many levels. We have been improving relative to racism in very good ways in a number of important areas — and the very fact that there were enough African American mothers with master’s degrees and Ph.D’s to be a statistically valid category, sample and measurable group in the Duke study tells us that we have made some progress in some areas. That number of African American mothers with graduate degrees would have been much smaller 20 years ago and it would have been statistically invisible or non-existent 50 years ago.
Progress has been made in some key areas related to racism, and we should celebrate and build on that progress.
But we also need to understand and accept the truth that we are far from resolving those issues of racism as a country at this point in time, and we should all recognize that the worry felt by those mothers about racism is entirely legitimate and accurate and prescient and appropriate and entirely valid at both functional and social levels at this point in time for each of those mothers because racism exists and because racism is doing damage to real people in our country today.
We Need to Take Steps to Reduce Racism and Inter Group Anger
We need to understand those issues that link to racism and inter group anger and division — and we need to recognize that we need to take steps now as a nation to remedy them because if we don’t deal effectively now with those issues that divide us, we are at risk of going down the same ugly and destructive paths that are happening today in over 200 settings in the world today where people are killing each other based on Us/Them instincts and based on their inability in those settings to be aligned and at Peace with each other.
The InterGroup Understanding books and website education and thought pieces about instinctive inter group behaviors explain why we have those racist components to both our history and to our current inter actions as a people, and why it is so dangerous to activate our Us/Them instincts and identify other people as Them in any setting.
To create a safe and internally aligned America — and to end some of those damaging inter tribal and inter group behaviors, emotions, and beliefs as an American people — we need to understand why we have those beliefs and we need to understand what we need to do about them at this point in our history.
The mothers who feel worry about the damage that racism might do to their family have very appropriate concerns. We have some people in our country today who have slipped into the mind sets of division and negative inter group behaviors — and that is a slippery and seductive and self-reinforcing slope once people actually go down it.
The internal conflicts we are having today in many communities and as a nation in some very visible ways will not disappear of their own accord. We need to do the right things and we need to do them well to succeed as a nation and as a people at multiple areas.
We have choices. We can have a wonderful and successful future as an aligned and mutually supportive nation, and we can leave our grandchildren a future where they are both successful and safe instead of being at war with one another.
Or, we can choose an ugly, dysfunctional and damaging future of division, anger and inter group separation — and we can give our grandchildren a future where they will need to be armed in their own homes because people from other groups will want to damage them or kill them because they are from a hated group of people and because our pathway as a nation to high levels of inter group diversity is irrevocable, inevitable and clearly destined to be our functional reality.
To achieve that goal, we need to make clear, intentional, and direct commitments to each other as an American people to help all of our groups thrive and prosper and do well.
We Need Children from Every Group to Get the Right Support in the First Months and Years
As part of that commitment that we make to each other, we need to give children from every group the right levels of brain strengthening and neuron linkages in the first months and years of life that will end and prevent the major disparities we have in our education and prison systems today.
There are a number of things we need to do as a country to give our grandchildren a future where we will not look just like a hundred other multi-group countries in the world who currently are at war with themselves.
The InterGroup books explain those conflicts in those other countries today as well. Syria, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Yemen, and a hundred other multi-tribal nations currently have people whose most negative inter group instincts are fully activated who are very intentionally and very deliberately doing damaging things to one another every day. We all have those sets of instincts — and we cannot allow them to be activated at those kinds of ugly and damaging levels here.
This particular study of the impact of racism on California births has an immediacy to it that should lead us to do things now for a number of mothers that will help reduce the number of preterm births in this country. We now know from the great research done at Duke that there are some mothers at highest risk — and we should each reach out now to all of those mothers to reduce their risk and to help them have healthy, happy full term babies and births.
We need our best and brightest caregivers to work together to support all African American mothers relative to those issues.
A couple of organized care systems who saw that report that was made to the California First Five Commission for Children and Families two months ago about the impact of that racism stress factor are beginning to do work in those areas. We need to learn from their efforts and we need to share them with other caregivers and communities in the country.
Please share this information with anyone who might be thinking or working with those mothers and those care sites where the premature birth rates are the highest in the world.
Also — please share both the Duke study and the California study with anyone who might be able to share it with any African American mothers who might somehow be in your world.
Knowledge is power.
Now that we have this particular knowledge, we need to use it to change the future for a number of people in important ways that will enhance lives and give us all a better result.
This post was written by Institute for InterGroup Understanding