By Yasmeen Golzar, MD
At the March for Life on January 24, “pro-life” supporters will undoubtedly celebrate the strides that have been made by the Trump administration on behalf of their anti-abortion cause.
However, if the movement is truly driven by the value of respecting the dignity of and preserving human life, they should reconsider Donald Trump as their champion. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are endangering the health of Latinos in the United States, affecting the lives of families and children, particularly the unborn.
When it comes unborn lives, words can do serious harm. Pregnancy is a time when women are particularly vulnerable to psychosocial stress, and epidemiologists have long used birth outcomes to understand the effect of acute stressors on a specific population. An increase in preterm births, the most common cause of infant morbidity and mortality worldwide, have been seen after certain devastating natural disasters and traumatic wars, and according to a study published last year, after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
The study published in JAMA Open Network looked at the birth outcomes of Latina women in the U.S. in the nine months following the elections, inarguably a time of heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric, and found that there was a significant increase —an excess of nearly 1000 births— in the number of premature babies that were born to them. Just as Trump’s words painted large swaths of Latinos in the same color, often conflating ethnicity and illegality, the health effects were seen across ethnic lines as well. Latina women were affected as a whole, including U.S. citizen, legal residents, and undocumented immigrants.
As a cardiologist caring for a mostly underserved population at a large public hospital in Chicago, I came upon this stunning study as I was researching whether there was a link between worsening of cardiac conditions I was seeing in my vulnerable Latino patients, and the stress they have been exposed to from anti-immigrant sentiment that has become prominent as part of the immigration discourse. Fear of deportation or worrying about the safety and security of loved ones is a common narrative preceding serious bouts of cardiac illness in many of my patients. Emerging data suggests that these health effects are likely being seen throughout the country.
According to a Pew Research poll, 55% of Latinos are worried that they or a loved one could be deported, a fear that is associated with increased depression and anxiety and poorer self-rated physical and mental health. This is no surprise since it is well established that chronic stress can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, and prolonged exposure to circulating stress hormones can put individuals at higher risk of developing potentially fatal conditions such as heart attacks and stroke.
Even when they are sick, Latinos who feel targeted by ant-immigrant rhetoric and policies are reluctant to access healthcare services, potentially leading easily treated ailments to worsen into more complicated conditions. Health systems and clinics throughout the U.S. have reported significantly increased no-show rates and appointment cancellations for their immigrant patient population since the 2016 presidential elections. This trend has particular ramifications to fetal health and birth outcomes since vulnerable Latina women are less likely to access prenatal care. A large study of nearly 25,000 births in Texas found that when anti-immigrant rhetoric was heightened during the 2016 presidential campaign, pregnant Latina women sought prenatal care later and less often. This trend should be of particular concern to “pro-life” supporters since it is well established that lack of prenatal care adversely affects fetal health and birth outcomes.
Some people may insist that pregnant women are responsible for seeking care for the children they carry. They are not wrong. There’s an argument that women should disregard the risk of “visibility” to the immigration system and do what is best for their child. These aren’t women that have shirked that duty. With harrowing stories such as those of infants being separated from their mothers and ICE detaining a disabled child en route for emergency surgery, some immigrant women may perceive foregoing prenatal care as being the safer option.
The health effects of stress can be particularly profound in children. Latino adolescents report feeling increased fear, anger, and anxiety since Trump was elected. A study of U.S. born Latino youths with at least one immigrant parent found that worry about immigration rhetoric and policy resulted in elevated anxiety levels, sleep problems, and blood pressure changes; these adolescents reported significantly increased anxiety levels after the 2016 presidential elections.
Though stress is difficult to quantify and study in young children, its repercussions are even more pronounced in the very young, with physical and mental health effects following them well into adulthood. Existing data suggests that children in mixed status households are particularly vulnerable. Considering the fact that one out of 4 children in America have at least one immigrant parent, and 80% of these children are U.S. citizens, the negative health impact of Trump’s anti-immigrant legacy is likely to affect Americans for decades to come.
Some people may insist that pregnant women are responsible for seeking care for the children they carry. They are not wrong. There’s an argument that women should disregard the risk of “visibility” to the immigration system and do what is best for their child. These aren’t women that have shirked that duty. With harrowing stories such as those of infants being separated from their mothers and ICE detaining a disabled child en route for emergency surgery, some immigrant women may perceive foregoing prenatal care as being the safer option.”
If the “pro-life” movement is truly “pro-child” and “pro-family,” its supporters should no longer tolerate, let alone support, Trump’s anti-immigrant stance. Certainly, there are those who may argue that they support him not because of but despite his harmful rhetoric, citing the numerous advances he has made to restrict access to abortions. If the appointment of conservative judges and defunding Planned Parenthood is enough for anti-abortion supporters to turn a blind eye to the harm that is being caused to Latino families and children by the words and actions of this president, then it may be time to relinquish the term “pro-life” for the anti-abortion movement.
Yasmeen Golzar, MD, is a cardiologist in Chicago. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project at Rush University Medical College.