Catholic hospitals often only choice for women of color in Milwaukee

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Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital–St. Joseph Campus in Milwaukee serves a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, and is located between a busy commercial street on one side, and a neighborhood on the other. A Bible verse is seen on a sign outside the building. Photographed on Dec. 6.

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Expectant mothers in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, have a wealth of hospitals to choose from, unlike some of their counterparts in rural areas. For the county’s black and Hispanic women, however, the choice is often a false one. 

Milwaukee babies’ first moments can reflect the city’s segregation. At the secular suburban hospital Aurora West Allis Medical Center, more than six out of 10 babies were born to white mothers, according to state Department of Health Services data. Eight miles away at St. Joseph, a Catholic hospital, more than six out of 10 babies were born to black mothers. 

That trend holds statewide. One-third of births to white women statewide occur in Catholic hospitals, compared to more than half of births to black women. Wisconsin is the only state where black women are more likely to deliver their babies in a Catholic institution than a non-Catholic one, according to Columbia Law School researchers.

Hispanic women are also more likely than white women to give birth at a Catholic hospital, with 45 percent giving birth in these facilities in Wisconsin. 

Serving the poor is central to the Catholic ethos. But focusing on poorer patients means the hospital’s religious-based restrictions may exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in reproductive care. 

Women of color, those who live in poverty and those with less education are less likely to use contraception and more likely to have unintended pregnancies, according to University of California-San Francisco researchers. A quarter of all Wisconsin births resulted from mistimed or unintended pregnancies in 2017, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, which is similar to the national rate. 

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Women of color and those living in poverty are also more likely to have maternal risk factors. In Wisconsin, more than half of black mothers delivered with at least one risk factor, such as hypertension or a previous preterm birth, with researchers linking poorer birth outcomes to systemic racism, chronic stress and socioeconomic disadvantage such as substandard housing and low wages. 

“You’re already facing so many barriers,” says Dr. Debra Stulberg, a physician at the University of Chicago Medicine who researches ways to improve reproductive health. “I think the harm inflicted by one additional hurdle to jump over is compounded and needs to be seen in a light that gives it full weight.”

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