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How Race Factors Into Infant Mortality

Petina Dixon-Jenkins
Courtesy of Petina Dixon-Jenkins

In Illinois, losing a baby before its first birthday happens far more often to black mothers than those of other races. The difference between whites and blacks is nearly three-fold.

Petina Dixon-Jenkins’ first born, Cole, died in her arms just minutes after he was born. His twin. Ava, died shortly after her birth a few hours later.

Because the Evanston woman went into labor four months into her pregnancy, the babies’ lungs were not developed enough for them to survive.

“Just seeing my first born and watching him slip away at the same time was unreal, and then trying to cope with that, and then within hours going through the same thing again, and losing my daughter. I just had never felt pain like that,’’ said Dixon-Jenkins, who is a communications manager for Rotary International.

After the twins’ deaths, they became an illustration of a grim phenomenon: Black babies are more than twice as likely as white infants to fail to live until their first birthdays. And Illinois is among the states where that racial disparity is greatest.

“In thinking about Illinois and the infant death rate by race and ethnicity, we know that there's a very stark disparity gap --34 percent of black African-American infants during …a two-year average did not make it to their first birthday," said Kweli Rashied-Henry, who is director of health equity at the March of Dimes.

Some of the factors driving that, experts say, are poverty, poor or lacking prenatal care, a propensity for African-American woman to have health issues like high blood pressure — and racism.

Tasha Green Cruzat, president of Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy group,  said battling the racial gap in infant mortality is a high priority for her organization.

Several studies point to racism as driving the disparate infant mortality rates, she said, including one indicating that did it not matter what the economic status was of the mother who delivered too soon.

“There is an issue when it comes to stress in African American women,” she said. A study “pretty much concluded that the accumulation of experiences of … our African American woman, the racial discrimination that she experiences, produces chronic stress and brings on problems that constitute risk factors for pre-term delivery.”

State Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat,  has introduced several bills related to the racial disparity in infant and maternal mortality and women’s health care. One would create a task force on racial disparity in infant and maternal mortality.

State Rep. Mary Flowers on the House floor
Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
State Rep. Mary Flowers on the House floor

“The stress is something that's inherent. It's been carried on from generation to generation. Being disrespected is stressful, being disrespected at work, or the environment that you live in, the conditions that you have to work. All kinds of things cause stress on the mom that caused her to have a miscarriage and caused her baby to die, not being given the right medication, not having the continuity of care,” Flowers said.

One of the changes that both the March of Dimes and Voices for Illinois Children support is an expansion of Medicaid insurance. Green Cruzat notes that a high percentage of African-Americans have Medicaid. March of Dimes wants the time mothers are covered extended. And Green Cruzat says the kinds of services covered– such as prenatal care and doulas to assist women during and after pregnancy – should be expanded.

A spokeswoman for  Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is giving his budget address next week, skirted the direct question, but did say he wants to expand health care for all Illinoisans.

Green Cruzat has another idea, too:

“There needs to be some sort of sensitivity training with our doctors here in Illinois. …

I think that that is defintely something that needs to be closely looked at.”

Nathan Jenkins and Petina Dixon-Jenkins with their children, Avery, 4, and Sullivan, 2.
Credit courtesy of Petina Dixon-Jenkins
Nathan Jenkins and Petina Dixon-Jenkins with their children, Avery, 4, and Sullivan, 2.

Dixon-Jenkins, the woman who lost her twins early, went into her pregnancy in fear because her mother had lost a baby, and her sister had an infant born pre-term. Dixon-Jenkins doesn’t know whether race played a factor in losing her children. She did have a series of problems with the pregnancy like extreme back pains, but doctors assured her everything about her pregnancy was normal.

Dixon-Jenkins said after the loss of her babies, she found it difficult to think ahead.

“It was not just the loss of the babies, at the time, it was the loss of everything we hoped for them . It was the loss of what we imagined for our family,” she said.

But two years after the loss of her twins she got pregnant again — this time with the aid of high-risk pregnancy specialists.

She now has a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, the babies she and her husband, Nathan, dreamed of before she learned she was pregnant with Ava and Cole.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Maureen Foertsch McKinney is the NPR Illinois News Editor and a lead editor of Illinois Issues' feature articles, working with freelance writers, and is curator of the Equity blog. Maureen joined the staff in 1998 as projects editor. Previously, she worked at three Illinois daily newspapers, most recently the suburban Chicago-based Daily Herald, where she served stints as an education reporter and copy editor. She graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's in journalism. She also has a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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