Texas Southern University’s Center for Justice Research, Baylor College of Medicine, and UTHealth McGovern Medical School will receive $2.6 million from the National Institutes of Health to examine perinatal health disparities, with a particular focus on women in Houston’s high-crime and high-incarceration communities. 

“We are pleased to receive this substantial grant from the NIH to examine the complex factors that contribute to maternal health disparities,” said Dr. Mary Evans Sias, Texas Southern University Interim President. “This research aligns directly with TSU’s mission of service and advancing knowledge to improve lives of our surrounding community, the entire city of Houston, the state, and the nation. We look forward to partnering with Baylor College of Medicine and UTHealth to gain a deeper understanding of the myriad of factors that impact the health of mothers and infants in our community.”

The research that will be funded by this grant comes at a time of urgent need for maternal health solutions, as the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among 13 high-income countries, and as the maternal mortality rate for Black women in America is more than double the overall U.S. rate. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) find that 80 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable and that Black women have three times the risk of maternal mortality compared to white women in the United States. Black women and Hispanic women also experience preterm birth and comorbidities, such as hypertension and gestational diabetes, at disproportionate rates. These disparities may worsen for women of color in high-risk communities who experience spillover stressors from violent crime, police violence, and incarceration. 

While past research has outlined individual factors of perinatal health, this research will focus on how environmental and systemic factors may overlap and jointly impact perinatal health outcomes. More specifically, the researchers on the project recognize the overlap of environmental racism, housing segregation, disinvestment, under/over policing, incarceration, subsequent socioeconomic and health disparities and the common thread of structural racism throughout that may impact perinatal health, including preterm births, low birth weights, comorbidities, and pregnancy/labor-related deaths. 

“Much of what we do at the Center for Justice Research, and what we aim to examine in this five-year project, is how all these environmental factors add up and contribute to disparities,” said Dr. Howard Henderson, Founder of the Center for Justice Research and one of the principal investigators on the project. “We are interested in the health outcomes of individuals in high-stress environments and historically under-resourced communities and whether a through-line can be drawn from structural racism to perinatal health disparities.”

Aligned with other projects at the Center, researchers aim to examine the root causes of inequities and the overlapping of health and criminal justice data to gain a more holistic understanding of perinatal health. 

The project has four key objectives:

  1. To examine the impact of structural racism on disparities in hypertension
  2. To examine the impact of structural racism on disparities in low birth weights and preterm birth
  3. To determine the joint impact of multiple areas of structural racism on disparities in perinatal health outcomes
  4. To determine key structural racism predictors of poor perinatal health outcomes

“In accomplishing our four main objectives, we hope to glean information not only about how structural racism is impacting mothers in under-resourced communities but also how we might employ that information to provide for better outcomes,” said Kristina Whitworth, a principal investigator on the project from the Baylor College of Medicine.

Through this research project, the Center for Justice Research and its partners aim to identify the joint factors of perinatal health outcomes and leverage this knowledge to improve these outcomes, lower maternal mortality, and eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in perinatal health. While centered in Harris County, Texas, this research has significant implications for those residing in high-risk communities that face similar structural racism challenges and speaks to the national maternal health crisis among women of color in the United States.