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An Increase in Women Legislators Is Linked to Fewer Infant Deaths

New research reports greater gender equality in state legislatures could significantly reduce the infant mortality rate.
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(Photo: John Downing/Express/Getty Images)

(Photo: John Downing/Express/Getty Images)

Unequal treatment for women is bad for babies. While that equation may seem self-evident, newly published research brings it home in a particularly vivid way.

Duke University sociologist Patricia Homan reports American states with higher percentages of women in their legislatures enjoy lower infant mortality rates. She found this relationship both when making state-to-state comparisons, and when looking at the same state’s statistics over the years.

“These findings underscore the importance of women’s political representation for population health,” she writes in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

The United States’ infant mortality rate is the highest of the world’s 28 wealthiest countries, according to a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That upsetting news “masks considerable state-level variation,” noted the Washington Post. While the overall American level was 6.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, the rate was as high as 8.7 in Alabama and 9.6 in Mississippi.

Noting that previous research has found a link between lower infant mortality rates and higher status for women in developing nations, Homan decided to determine if the same was true for the U.S. Using data for the years 1990 to 2012, she looked at each state’s infant mortality rate (the number of deaths of infants under one year of age per 1,000 live births) and compared it with the percentage of seats in the state legislature that were occupied by women.

After controlling for various factors, including education, income, and “the percentage of the state population that is below the federal poverty line in each year,” she found a remarkable correlation. “Higher percentages of women in state legislatures are associated with reduced infant mortality rates,” she writes, “both between states and within states over time.”

“The results suggest that political gender equality is of equal or greater importance as a determinant of state infant mortality rates than state poverty levels,” she adds. “According to model projections, if women were at parity with men in state legislatures, the expected number of infant deaths in the U.S. in 2012 would have been lower by approximately 14.6 percent, or 3,478 infant deaths.”

The study does not attempt to explain why fewer infants die in states with greater female political representation, but Homan has some ideas. “Women who are elected may use their political power in ways that are beneficial for women, children, the poor, and overall public health,” she writes.

In addition, “The underrepresentation of women in state legislatures most likely reflects a broader climate of gender inequality that extends beyond the political realm to social, cultural, and economic conditions, all of which may also play a role in shaping women’s health (and that of their infants),” she adds. In other words, a higher percentage of female legislators may reflect a society that values women’s and children’s health and welfare.

If the pro-life movement would like to expand its scope beyond abortion — and find common ground with feminists — this might be a good place to start.