Of the 33 countries that the International Monetary Fund describes as “advanced economies,” the United States now has the highest infant mortality rate according to data from the World Bank. It took us decades to arrive at this dubious distinction. In 1960, we were 15th. In 1980, we were 13th. And, in 2000, we were 2nd.
Part of the reason for our poor ranking is that declines in our rates stalled after premature births — a leading cause of infant mortality as well as long-term developmental disabilities — began to rise in the 1990s.
The good news is that last year the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the rate of premature births fell in 2008, representing the first two-year decline in the last 30 years.
Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, the president of the March of Dimes, which in 2003 started a multimillion-dollar premature birth campaign focusing on awareness and education, has said of the decline: “The policy changes and programs to prevent preterm birth that our volunteers and staff have worked so hard to bring about are starting to pay off.”
The bad news is that, according to the March of Dimes, the Republican budget passed in the House this month could do great damage to this progress. The budget proposes:
• $50 million in cuts to the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant that “supports state-based prenatal care programs and services for children with special needs.”
• $1 billion in cuts to programs at the National Institutes of Health that support “lifesaving biomedical research aimed at finding the causes and developing strategies for preventing preterm birth.”
• Nearly $1 billion in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its preventive health programs, including to its preterm birth studies.
This is the same budget in which House Republicans voted to strip all federal financing for Planned Parenthood.
It is savagely immoral and profoundly inconsistent to insist that women endure unwanted — and in some cases dangerous — pregnancies for the sake of “unborn children,” then eliminate financing designed to prevent those children from being delivered prematurely, rendering them the most fragile and vulnerable of newborns. How is this humane?
And it doesn’t even make economic sense. A 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies estimated that premature births cost the country at least $26 billion a year. At that rate, reducing the number of premature births by just 10 percent would save thousands of babies and $2.6 billion — more than the proposed cuts to the programs listed, programs that also provide a wide variety of other services.
This type of budgetary policy is penny-wise and pound-foolish — and ultimately deadly. Think about that the next time you hear Republican representatives tout their “pro-life” bona fides. Think about that the next time someone uses the heinous term “baby killer.”