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Infant Mortality Rate at Odds with 'Culture of Life'

ED GORDON, host:

A recent report shows that the United States has the second-highest infant-mortality rate among developed countries, and the mortality rate for African-American babies is almost double that of the U.S. as a whole.

Commentator Lester Spence says these findings are cause for concern, especially if you consider the current administration's desire to create a culture of life.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): Save the children, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the health of children and mothers around the world, recently released its annual State of the World's Mother Report. The report ranks the status of mothers, women, and children in 125 countries.

Sweden is the best place to be a mother, in the world, according to the rankings, while Niger is the worst. The United States is tenth.

This ranking is deceptive though. Among developed countries, the U.S. is second to last. The newborn mortality rate in the U.S. is 2.5 times higher than Finland, Iceland, and Norway. It is 3 times higher than the newborn mortality rate of Japan. Only Latvia has a worse rate than the United States.

Furthermore, according to the report, the United States has more neo-natal specialists and neo-natal intensive care beds then Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia - but still, our newborn mortality rate outstrips them.

Looking within the states, it should come as no shock that some groups are faring much better than others on this issue. African-American rates, as well as those of other non-whites, are much higher than those of their white counterparts. Even when all other significant risk factors were taken into account, the odds of newborn infants dying were 3.4 times higher in blacks, 1.5 times higher in Latinos, and 1.9 times higher for non-whites in general.

To some listeners, these numbers, while tragic, may not hit home. Before I became a parent, I didn't think much about the relationship between health and politics in general, nor did I think much about the political dynamics of newborn mortality rates. But I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, Emani(ph), some 12 years ago. A number of our friends were pregnant at the same time. Though my wife and our friends, all African-Americans, were in their 20s, healthy, and college educated, my wife was one of the few who did not have significant complications.

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he told supporters that he wanted the U.S. to embrace a culture of life, in order to send a clear signal to his white culturally conservative base that he was dedicated to the cause of making abortion illegal. If Bush believes that a culture of life is one in which abortion is made illegal, he has the right to attempt to enforce this just as those who disagree, like myself, have the right to fight him and his supporters. But for me, and for those of us who believe a culture of life is one in which black women shouldn't be more likely to bear stillborn children just because of their race; for those of us who believe that a culture of life provides extensive preventative healthcare to ensure that babies aren't born underweight; for those of us who believe that a culture of life assures that women and their children have the nutrition needed to be healthy and hale; Bush's vision is woefully inadequate.

One of the central reasons why the U.S. ranks almost dead-last among industrial countries in newborn mortality rates, is because our government has been far more concerned with moral pronouncements regarding procreation than it has been with the reasonable policies needed in order to ensure the protection of mothers.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lester Spence