Women in states with fewer reproductive health restrictions deliver healthier babies, at least as measured by birth weight,researchers reported Tuesday.
When states did less to restrict a woman’s reproductive health rights, babies were more likely to be born at healthier weights, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The researchers suggest that systematic racism may be at play.
“The U.S. has a long history of oppressive reproductive policies and ideologies that results in the devaluation of certain lives, mainly racial/ethnic minorities,” the research team wrote.
May Sudhinaraset, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, and colleagues analyzed the records from 3.9 million births across the US in 2016.
They assessed the restrictiveness of each state’s reproductive health policies by looking at indicators such as mandatory waiting periods for abortion services, expanded eligibility for Medicaid family planning services, and the percentage of women living in counties with abortion providers.
The researchers found that that women living in states with the least restrictive reproductive health policies were 7% less likely to deliver a baby with low birth weight than those in the most restrictive states. Black women in those states were 8% less likely to have a child with low birth weight than their counterparts in the most restrictive states.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, babies born under 5 lb. 8 oz. are considered to have low birth weight. This can place some babies at greater risk for health problems, including breathing issues and infection.
“We know that compared to normal weight babies, low birth weight babies are more at risk for a number of different problems, including developing infections in the first few days of their lives, to more long-term outcomes, like delayed social development or learning disabilities,” Sudhinaraset told CNN.
The study shows that the birth weights of babies born to Black women who had themselves been born outside of the US appear to be less impacted by restrictive policies. These women “may have had less time exposed to the historical and contemporary features of structural racism that restrict access to health promoting resources and opportunities among people of color in the U.S.,” the researchers note.
The team categorized 20 states, including Texas, Colorado and Louisiana, as having the most restrictions on reproductive rights and called for further research into the impact of reproductive health policies as they change over time.
“Reproductive rights policies can inhibit women from achieving their full health potential, and that in turn can cause chronic stress that results in worse birth outcomes,” Sudhinaraset said.
She added that these policies can play a large role in determining whether women have access to reproductive health services that they critically need.
“This study really speaks to the real and important ways that reproductive rights policies are critical social determinants of health,” Sudhinaraset said. “To really address issues of health inequity, we need to enact policies for women to be able to make decisions for their own bodies, and their lives and their children, if they want to have them.”