Despite the millions of dollars invested in prenatal care, the US infant mortality rate remains stubbornly high, ranking now 29th in the world. Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that each of these deaths represents a tragedy and a public health failure. Only a few interventions have been demonstrated to decrease infant mortality, yet the House of Representatives has just voted to cut one of the few programs proven to reduce these deaths: Title X funding of family planning services.
It may seem counter-intuitive that services intended to prevent pregnancy could prevent infant deaths. The answer lies in the true purpose of family planning services: allowing women to control their own fertility and to choose the timing of each pregnancy. Preterm birth and low birth weight together make up one of the largest preventable causes of infant deaths, accounting for approximately 5000 deaths per year. Teen pregnancy and close spacing of pregnancies are major risk factors for both preterm birth and low birth weight. By allowing women access to affordable contraceptive services, family planning programs help to defer pregnancy for both teens and new mothers. This means fewer teen pregnancies and fewer closely spaced pregnancies, both of which translate into fewer infants at risk of death due to prematurity and low birth weight.
The basic public health facts have been lost for too long in the rhetoric of abortion. We need every legislator to understand what physicians and the public health community have long known: family planning programs lower the number of infants who die.