Greater reproductive rights for women -- such as access to sex education and birth control -- are associated with lower rates of low birth weight babies, a new study finds.
Reproductive rights refer to a woman's right to plan motherhood. This includes use of birth control or abortion, access to reproductive health services and sex ed in the public schools.
"Our study provides evidence that reproductive rights policies play a critical role in advancing maternal and child health equity," said lead investigator May Sudhinaraset. She's with the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data on nearly 4 million births that occurred in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia in 2016.
Compared with women living in states with the most restrictive reproductive rights policies, women in the least restrictive states had a 7% lower risk of having a low birth weight baby. (A low birth weight is less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces, according to the March of Dimes.)
The low birth weight risk was 8% lower among Black women in states with the least restrictive reproductive rights policies compared with their counterparts living in the most restrictive states, the findings showed.
The study was published Oct. 13 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Underweight babies are at increased risk for health problems, the study authors noted. Some may become sick in the first few days of life or develop infections, and others may have long-term problems, including delayed motor and social development or learning disabilities.
The study findings suggest that expanding women's reproductive rights may decrease the risk of low birth weight infants, particularly for Black women, the researchers said.
Black women are more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than any other racial group in the United States. They have more pregnancy health complications than white women, and have lower quality maternity care, including disrespectful care during childbirth, the study authors said in a journal news release.
"Addressing the adverse consequences of structural racism requires examination of the historical and present-day policies that negatively affect women of color," Sudhinaraset said.
Additional research should assess women's experiences of policy exclusion or inclusion, and the effects on women and newborn health, she added.
"Important policy levers can and should be implemented to improve women's reproductive health overall, including increasing abortion access and mandatory sex education in schools," Sudhinaraset said in the news release.
The March of Dimes has more on low birth weight.