Any serious select panel on infant lives must consider the full range of issues that impact the health of women and infants before, during, and after a pregnancy. Our interest in protecting infant lives cannot, and should not, begin and end with childbirth.

Our infant mortality rate is a national embarrassment

“The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than any of the other 27 wealthy countries, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control. A baby born in the U.S. is nearly three times as likely to die during her first year of life as one born in Finland or Japan. That same American baby is about twice as likely to die in her first year as a Spanish or Korean one.”

If the Republicans are really interested in infant lives, the Panel should examine how federal programs to improve maternal and infant health, early childhood development, child nutrition, and school readiness are faring under Republican leadership and explore what more can be done to bolster support for women and children nationwide.

Below are a few of the many steps Congress can take now to improve infant lives:

1) Supporting Research to Improve Infant Lives

Fetal tissue was used to develop life-saving vaccines that have improved or saved millions of infant lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these vaccines have prevented 322,000,000 million illnesses and 732,000 premature child deaths between 1993 and 2014.

In the last century, medical research has led to numerous scientific advances that have drastically improved the lives of children.  Perhaps none of these advances have been more impactful than the development of vaccines. ...  Chicken pox, hepatitis A, polio, rabies, rubella vaccines are grown in human cell cultures developed from two cell lines that were derived from fetal tissue in the 1960s.  Fetal tissue research has played an integral role in the vaccine development that has saved millions of lives throughout history.

“Human fetal tissue is critical for understanding how typical fetal development occurs and addressing diseases and conditions that affect the health of developing infants. For example, scientists are using fetal tissue to study the immune systems of the fetus and mother, and any incompatibilities arising due to infection or inflammation that may lead to rejection, miscarriage or preterm birth. Fetal tissue is being used to identify biomarkers in maternal blood serum to help predict early pregnancy loss and allow for possible interventions to prevent such events. Additionally, fetal tissue is being used to study the origin and genetic roots of structural birth defects that are the leading cause of infant deaths.”

Fetal tissue may also prove important to advancing our understanding and possible treatment of the Zika virus, a condition that has been linked to microcephaly— a serious and incurable brain malformation that can be fatal.

Nature Magazine: Zika highlights role of controversial fetal-tissue research

Zika Baby

“Recent advances in neuroscience and cell technology have given hints as to why some babies born to Zika-infected mothers have abnormally small heads — a condition called microcephaly — and other problems, such as eye damage. But to fully understand what is happening in the womb, some scientists say that they need to study tissue from fetuses, which can be donated by couples who terminate pregnancies. . . . ‘It is absolutely essential to study Zika infection in human fetal tissue,’ says [Carolyn Coyne, virologist probing Zika transmission between mothers and babies]. ‘These types of studies need to extend to all stages of pregnancy.’”

“[T]he Zika virus has been linked to fetal deaths and birth defects such as microcephaly, prompting the World Health Organization to declare it an international public health emergency. In order to understand the virus’ effect on pregnant women and their fetus, scientists are using fetal tissue to test how the virus may cause these birth defects. ... Donated fetal tissue allows scientists to gain the necessary information on how the virus affects the fetus in utero, and to test a range of potential therapies and treatments for safety and efficacy.”

Ms. Schakowsky: Would not having fetal tissue as a resource in this study potentially delay finding a cure?

Mr. Goldstein: It would absolutely delay it. I think you have to go to the source if you want to understand what is going wrong.

Despite the potential for improving infant lives, Republicans are endangering this research:

Scientists say such laws in states like Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Indiana — along with an escalating probe of fetal tissue research by House Republicans — are becoming roadblocks to the research needed to combat Zika. But the reaction has been muted because scientists fear the wrath of anti-abortion activists, even though many say the research is urgent to find the answers that could save children from birth defects or death…Robert Golden, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, helped fight off an effort to ban fetal tissue research that had gained traction in his state last fall…‘With the horrors of the Zika virus and its almost certain spread to Florida, to me it’s unfathomable that anyone there would want to restrict this research,’ Golden said.

The House investigation into how some of the nation’s most prestigious universities acquire fetal tissue has prompted charges of intimidation and coercion, escalating a battle that some researchers fear could shut down studies seeking cures for Parkinson’s disease, the Zika virus and a host of other conditions.

US scientists worry that the controversy is affecting the availability of donated fetal tissue, and could thus hamper crucial research on the Zika virus. ‘Many fewer people are willing to donate, and it’s slowing us down,’ says Susan Fisher, a stem-cell and developmental biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

2) Expanding Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children improves health outcomes

Expanding Medicaid coverage helps improve maternal and infant health outcomes by providing low-income women with continuous health coverage. Prior to the expansion made available through the Affordable Care Act, many women could only gain coverage under Medicaid when they became pregnant – not before, or after childbirth. This continuous coverage is fundamentally important because -- as research consistently shows -- when women have coverage before becoming pregnant and between pregnancies, they have healthier pregnancies and deliveries.

Yet – despite the clear benefit to infant lives – Chair Blackburn opposes the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act in her home state.
In fact, Chair Blackburn and the Republican-controlled House have voted 63 times to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which provides a number of critical benefits for women and infants.

The Republican's latest effort (HR 3762) would increase by 22 million the number of people without health insurance coverage.  It would also repeal the Prevention and Public Health fund, which improves public health outcomes through preventing chronic illness and disease with investments in a broad range of evidence-based activities, as well as other critical programs that screen for reproductive cancers and support adult and childhood immunizations. 

Why the ACA Matters for Women:
  • Access to affordable health care coverage. "By 2014, changes to the health care system under the ACA could make nearly 19 million previously uninsured women eligible for affordable, comprehensive health coverage through expanded Medicaid coverage and subsidies for women who lack employer sponsored health insurance."
  • Guaranteed preventive services such as birth control, mammograms and cervical cancer screenings, with no deductibles or copays. "New private insurance plans will be required to cover a wide range of recommended services without cost-sharing, including well-women visits; screenings for gestational diabetes, osteoporosis, and colon cancer; pap smears and pelvic exams; HPV DNA co-testing; STI and HIV screenings and counseling; all FDA-approved contraceptive methods; breastfeeding support, counseling, and supplies; and screenings and counseling related to interpersonal violence. Private plans also must cover screenings and vaccinations critical to children’s health without out-of-pocket costs."
  • Universal Maternity Coverage. "New and expectant families will benefit from a home visitation program that pairs them with trained professionals to provide parenting information, resources and support during pregnancy and throughout their child’s first three years."

3) Raising the Minimum Wage

Raising the minimum wage would help 14 million children living in poverty, yet the House Republicans voted unanimously against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

“[O]f the 76 million children in the United States, over a quarter (28.2 percent) have a parent who would benefit from the proposed federal minimum-wage increase.” 

4) Providing Paid Sick Leave

Workers in 145 countries around the world have earned paid sick days, but there is no policy to ensure earned paid sick days in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Labor has concluded that “paid sick time is a basic building block of family economic security.

Yet House Republicans unanimously voted against even allowing a vote on whether to give American workers the right to earn seven job-protected sick days annually. Lawmakers interested in protecting infant lives should support – not oppose – legislation to guarantee working people the right to earn paid sick leave to recover from their own illnesses, care for a sick child, or seek preventative care.

5) Requiring Paid Maternity/Family Leave

The United States has no mandatory paid family leave policy – making it one of just three countries in the world and the only industrialized country not to mandate paid maternity leave for new mothers. Paid parental leave can have a significant positive effect on the health of children and mothers, including lower rates of infant and child mortality, increased incidence and length of breastfeeding, and improved cognitive development in children.

“Paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10%, according to a 2011 study of 141 countries with paid leave policies. It also increases the likelihood of infants getting well-baby care visits and vaccinations, with one study finding that children were 25.3% and 22.2% more likely to get their measles and polio vaccines, respectively, when their mother had access to paid maternity leave. Without paid leave, there was no increase in immunizations.”

Yet the majority of Republicans in Congress oppose paid family leave.

6) Fully funding the President’s initiative to end family homelessness

The combined effects of stagnant wages and escalating rental costs have left many families homeless or in unstable living situations. Homelessness adversely impacts infants, children, and youth in many ways.

"Homelessness is linked to poor physical health for children including low birth weight, malnutrition, ear infections, exposure to environmental toxins and chronic illness (e.g., asthma).  Homeless children also are less likely to have adequate access to medical and dental care.”

Congress should fully fund the President’s ten-year initiative to provide housing vouchers and rapid re-housing grants with the goal of ending homelessness among families with children.