House committee on racial justice discusses Black infant, maternal mortality rates at first meeting

ST. PAUL — Having passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in July, a Minnesota House legislative committee on Tuesday, Sept. 22, heard from experts on where racial disparities in health outcomes often begin: right after birth.

Tuesday marked the House’s newly formed Committee on Racial Justice’s first meeting. The committee was established as part of the July’s resolution, which promises that the House will study the connections between racism and public health outcomes and pass legislation in order to “actively participate in the dismantling of racism.”

The committee heard from Rachel Hardeman, a University of Minnesota public health professor who studies reproductive health and its connections with race. Hardeman told legislators Tuesday that while infant mortality rates overall have declined since the 19th century, non-white babies die within their first year of life at much higher rates than white babies. In Minnesota specifically, Black and Indigenous babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthdays than white babies, Hardeman said.

For the mothers giving birth in the United States, overall maternal health outcomes have actually grown more dire in the past three decades, bucking sunnier trends elsewhere in the world. Since 1990, pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths have trended up in the United States, while other developed nations’ maternal mortalities have trended down in those same years.

For mothers of color, those numbers are even more grim, Hardeman said Tuesday. Black women, specifically are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy and childbirth-related causes compared to white mothers, she said.

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“This statistic continues to persist despite education level and socioeconomic status, despite access to prenatal care,” Hardeman said, “which suggests there’s some other things happening or underlying what’s happening.”

She said the underlying “root cause” of these health disparities for mothers and babies of color is racism. Quoting Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of National Birth Equity Collaborative, Hardeman said to the legislators, “Race isn’t a risk factor in maternal and infant health. Racism is.”

The legislators did not take action or propose legislation during Tuesday’s informational hearing. State Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, said that Tuesday was “just day one,” and that the committee will continue to hold informational hearings on a regular basis that will lead to legislative proposals.

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