Moralists in the U.S. ignore child-killing conditions while waving the pro-life banner

The fact that high rates of infant and maternal mortality persist in the richest nation on earth mocks the phrase pro-life, writes Linn Washington.

File - Protestors gathered outside the Planned Parenthood Clinic on Locust Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File - Protestors gathered outside the Planned Parenthood Clinic on Locust Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The preachy pro-life pronouncements from many in Congress and on the U.S. Supreme Court indignantly ignore child-killing conditions in Washington DC’s Ward 8, an area located a short distance southeast of Capitol Hill which has been long ravished by high rates of infant mortality.

The poverty-related issues prevalent in Ward 8 also trigger high rates of maternal mortality in the area’s communities, which include Anacostia, where crime is reported as significantly higher than in the rest of the District of Columbia.

A report released last year listed Ward 8 as the area in DC that accounts for over 40 percent of all deaths in the city for infants during their first year of life and mothers during pregnancy or childbirth. Additionally, a report released in 2004 that examined poverty-related issues in Ward 8 declared infant mortality a “serious problem.”

Poverty-related issues in Ward 8 include limited access to medical care and proper nutrition: conditions that aggravate infant and maternal mortality. In Ward 8 – where nearly a quarter of the residents live in poverty and over 90 percent of residents are African American – the rate of infant mortality is seven times higher than in DC’s wealthiest Ward, where over 80 percent of residents are white.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Poverty crushes the quality of life for children in an array of arenas, from high hunger and poor health to impaired educational attainment. The lack of initiatives to address festering poverty in places like DC’s Ward 8, highlights hypocrisy among powerful pro-life proponents who prioritize concerns for the unborn over conditions endured by children already here.

The rancor in America around rights for the unborn, which animates clashes over abortion, obscures a reality that all caring Americans should consider shamefully unacceptable: outrageously high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality in the United States.

Infant mortality rates ranked the U.S. 33rd out of the 36 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. A 2015 report from Save The Children listed infant mortality in Washington, DC as the highest among the world’s 25 wealthiest capital cities. Black women in Philadelphia, for example, comprise 73 percent of pregnancy-related deaths, according to a 2021 study released by the Philadelphia Maternal Mortality Review Committee.

The state with the nation’s highest infant mortality rate is Mississippi. The mortality rate for Black infants in Mississippi is nearly double that of white infants. This Deep South state also registers nation-leading levels of child hunger and child poverty.

Ironically, Mississippi is the state with a strident anti-abortion law that conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court appear poised to use as the case to overturn the seminal 1973 Roe abortion rights ruling.

The draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion in that Mississippi case, which was recently leaked to the media, contains a curious rationale cited by pro-life proponents for eliminating abortion. That rationale in Footnote 41 of the leaked opinion contends abortion is a form of eugenics designed to limit the growth of America’s Black population.

While that Footnote states Black women terminate unwanted pregnancies at “highly disproportionate” rates, there is no recognition that Black women also confront highly disproportionate rates of lacking access to contraceptives. This contention of abortions adversely impacting African Americans rings hollow in the context of repeated failures to effectively address systemic impoverishment in places like DC’s Ward 8, Mississippi, and Philadelphia, which contribute to high rates of infant and maternal mortality.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That leaked draft was authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who served on the federal appeals court in Philadelphia before his elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Alito is one of the jurists on that court who consistently constrains constitutional protections for Blacks, like limiting voting rights, and who rarely hires African Americans for the prestigious, career-enhancing position of law clerk.

The decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is a highly personal choice fraught with emotion that should not be decided by state legislators as that draft declares.

Alito’s draft asserted that expanded options for adoption diminish the need for abortion as a choice for women. Yet, President Biden in a Proclamation issued at the end of April 2022 acknowledged another rough reality: Black and Native American children are “less likely to be adopted.”

The fact that high rates of infant and maternal mortality persist in the richest nation on earth mocks the phrase pro-life.

Linn Washington Jr., a journalism professor at Temple University, is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal