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The state responsible for shattering decades of federal protections for reproductive rights also has the highest rate of babies dying before their first birthday, an infant mortality rate that is double for African Americans.
On Friday, pro-choice Americans made their voices heard at federal courthouses around the country as they protested the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization upholding the state’s 15-week abortion ban, ultimately undoing a federal right to an abortion and leaving individual states to decide on the issue.
The state ban was in clear violation of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, a precedent which has affirmed abortion rights for half a century. Yet, with Justice Clarence Thomas indicating that the Court should now “reconsider” other cases that legalized contraceptives, same-sex relationships and gay marriage, anti-abortion activists and politicians have been emboldened to strengthen what they call “the right to life.”
Meanwhile, states like Mississippi and Oklahoma that are leading the fight to outlaw abortion haven’t expressed as much enthusiasm around reducing their infant mortality rates.
Infant Mortality Rates high in “pro-life” states
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Infant mortality is the death of an infant before his or her first birthday. The infant mortality rate is the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.”
The five leading causes of infant death include: birth defects, preterm birth, sudden infant death syndrome, injuries and maternal pregnancy complications.
Notably, Black newborns are three times more likely to die in the hospital when being cared for by a White doctor as opposed to a Black doctor, according to a 2020 study from George Mason University researchers that analyzed 1.8 million births in Florida hospitals from 1992 to 2015. And as many in the Black community are already painfully aware, Black woman are several times more likely to die from childbirth as White woman in the U.S.
In Mississippi, the state with the highest infant mortality rate, there were 615 infant deaths out of 72,114 live births in 2020, or 8.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the most recent report from Mississippi State Department of Health.
When broken down by race, the disparity becomes even worse. In 2020, even though there were over 2,000 more White births than Black births in Mississippi, Black babies died at nearly double the rate (179) of White babies (100).
During a Friday press conference, the owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, nicknamed the Pink House, said they’d be opening a new location in Las Cruces, New Mexico that would be ready in a few weeks, according to Reuters. New Mexico’s legislature has taken legislative action to ensure it remains legal, unlike neighboring states of Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Arizona, which did the opposite.
“We have been preparing, but nothing can really prepare you for the actual day that it comes down,” Jackson Women’s Health Organization executive director Shannon Brewer said on Friday. “We’re still here, we’re still fighting, we’re just fighting in a different place.”
Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate 25% higher than national average, data page deleted from state website
For its part, Oklahoma has billed itself as a leader in the fight to outlaw abortion. Governor Kevin Stitt has been labeled “the most pro-life governor” after signing a slew of anti-abortion bills that criminalize abortion from conception, bring down felony charges on doctors who perform the procedure, and allow private citizens to sue anyone who they believe helps someone obtain an abortion.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate is 25% higher than the national average, according to 2019 data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Governor Stitt has campaigned for years on making Oklahoma the most pro-life state, yet he hasn’t spoken once about the infant mortality rate.
Curiously, the data showing Oklahoma’s rate is above the national average no longer appears on the state website. The state’s site only shows how much the rate has been decreasing over the years, while showing an error message for the specific page pointing to the abnormally high infant mortality rate.
In order to view that data on infant mortality rate, one has to access an internet archive of deleted pages called the Wayback Machine.
Abortion bans lead to fear, confusion
The chaos and confusion that the series of Oklahoma laws has created was intentional, at least according to defenders of reproductive rights.
“Can people give to the Roe fund?” ACLU of Oklahoma executive director Tamya Cox Touré asked State Impact’s Catherine Sweeney. “Can people simply tell people, ‘You have options in other states’? Is that in violation,” she added, accusing state leaders of creating a climate of fear and doubt.
“We’re really thinking that maybe it is very intentional,” she said. “That it is very much part of the strategy behind these ultra-conservative bills.”
Though Oklahoma has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws on the books, none of them explicitly ban contraceptives or IUDs at the moment.
Yet, with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland warning states they can’t ban FDA-approved abortion medications like mifepristone, the continuing attack on reproductive rights promises to remain a bitter battle.
Correction: A previous headline incorrectly stated Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate is twice the national average. It is 25% higher than the national average.