March 12, 2023 Essay: Social Sin

Mar 3, 2023

Sin is almost synonymous with Lent. Our primary focus is normally on our personal sin, but we should not neglect the reality of social sin, the ways in which the society in which we live sustains systems and structures that violate the rights and dignity of individuals. Just as we are called to overcome our personal sinfulness, we are also called to change systems and structures that contribute to social sin. One of the perniciously persistent social sins of our society is racism. We need to reflect on how it manifests itself and how we respond to it.

Maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States are significantly higher than in other developed nations. When you look at the rate of maternal mortality rates by race, there is a shocking disparity that has only gotten worse over time. In 2000, the national maternal mortality rate was 9.8 deaths per 100,000 births. For Black women, it was 22 deaths per 100,000 births. In 2020, the maternal death rate for White women was 19.1 deaths per 100,000 births, while for Black women, the rate was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. Independent research has shown that a variety of factors contribute to the high rate of maternal deaths among Black women: the prevalence of chronic diseases associated with high mortality rates; lack of access to quality prenatal care, birth care, and post-partum care; stressors that are particularly acute for Black women; and unconscious bias in the delivery of health care to persons of color.

Underscoring the dramatic difference in maternal and infant outcomes for Black women was a recent study of two million California births from 2007 to 2016. The study showed that the richest mothers and their newborns are most likely to survive after childbirth – except when the family is Black. The risks of childbirth vary by both race and parental income, with Black families suffering the worst outcomes regardless of income. Both maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates were just as high among the highest-income Black women as among low-income White women. What makes this study particularly disturbing is that California represents the best-case scenario because California’s maternal mortality rates have declined over the last decade, and California has some of the most generous policies to support pregnant women. If this study were replicated in other states with less generous policies and higher maternal mortality rates, the disparity might well be greater.

High rates of maternal and infant mortality should be of great concern to us, who are committed to respecting and protecting the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death. Seeing significant racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates should serve to remind us that the social sin of racism manifests itself in many forms and requires our constant efforts to uproot it. We should be active advocates for ensuring that all pregnant women have access to insurance before and after pregnancy, paid family leave, access to quality prenatal care, birth care, and post-partum care, and generous nutritional support programs for the mother and child. Targeted outreach to communities of color to ensure that they know of and have access to these benefits will be critical to begin closing the gap in maternal and infant mortality rates.

As we seek to address our personal sins this Lent, let us not neglect the social sins of our society. Each of us must do what we can to help uproot such sins so that our society will become what God wants it to be: one people united in our care for each other, with particular concern for those who are the most vulnerable among us.

— Fr. Mark Hallinan, S.J., Associate Pastor