The United States may be one of the richest countries in the world, but babies born here are more likely to die in their first year of life than babies in many other developed countries, including Japan, Australia, Canada and the whole of the European Union.
It is a problem that has vexed public health experts for decades, but a new study offers up one tantalizingly simple and effective way to help ensure fewer babies die: Elect more women.
“Research has found, again and again, that women’s education, literacy levels, formal rights and political representation are all related to infant mortality, but this has been focused on the less-developed world—low- and middle-income countries,” Patricia Homan, a sociologist and doctoral candidate with Duke University and the author of the new study, told HuffPost. “I think that this is a really important topic for the U.S. for a couple of reasons. First, our infant mortality rates are incredibly high, among the highest in the developed world. And also, we have persistent gender inequality.”
Homan compared data on women in state legislatures between 1990 and 2012 as well as the infant mortality rates during that time period. She devised a formula to help control for many of the factors known to influence infant mortality including (but not limited to) the racial makeup of various states as well as the proportion of people living below the federal poverty level.
Homan found that having more women legislators at a given time, in a given state, was clearly tied to reduced infant mortality rates.
“Each one percent increase in the proportion of women [in state legislatures] is associated with a decrease in the infant mortality rate of 0.034. That maybe doesn’t mean anything to your average person, which is why I came up with this way of quantifying it at the population level,” Homan said.
“A new study offers up one tantalizingly simple and effective way to help ensure fewer babies die: Elect more women.”
Using her formula, she projected that had there been an equal number of men and women in state legislatures in 2012, the number of infant deaths nationwide would have been lowered by a whopping 14 percent.
It is worth noting that Homan’s study analyzed data through 2012, but the infant mortality rate has reached new lows since then. And yet the rate of 5.82 infant deaths per 1,000 live births remains among the highest in the developed world—with significant racial disparities.
Homan said that her findings, published recently in the journal Social Science & Medicine, merely scratch the surface of understanding to what extent having more women in office might contribute to a lower infant mortality rate—and why. But she has theories.
“The more narrow perspective is that there may be gender differences in legislative priorities,” she explained. “That whole line of argument says that the more women legislators there are, they more likely they’re going to be to invest in social programs, like education, healthcare, nutrition because women care more about these things. So population health and infant mortality is going to improve because of women actually legislating differently.”
There certainly is strong evidence that women in Congress, for example, tend to propose more bills focused on the issues that directly affect women’s lives.
But the researcher also said it is possible that the link between women legislators and decreased infant mortality isn’t just about legislative priorities; it’s about a state’s willingness to put women in positions of power and what that says about broader gender equality there.
“From that point of view, women’s political representation would be part of a larger system of gender inequality that operates in civil, social, economic cultural areas beyond politics to impact women’s life chances, their health and the health of their children,” Homan said. “I’m definitely trying to do follow-up work to understand how this may impact the health of not only women and children, but also men.”