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Detroit’s Dead Baby Scandal Points to America’s Problem with Infant Mortality

The discovery of dozens of infant corpses in Michigan funeral homes shocked many. It shouldn't have.

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Police recovered the remains of over 70 infants from two different Detroit funeral homes over the last week. While officials are currently investigating why the infant remains were not properly interred, the owner of both funeral homes claims to have been following Michigan rules for unclaimed bodies. Whether or not that’s a plausible story is unclear, but what is for certain is that the corpses don’t represent an anomaly. Detroit has one of America’s worst infant mortality rates and America ranks 26 among developed nations (behind Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) in infant mortality.

Infant mortality in the United States is 5.9 per 1000 live births. That rate is similar to countries like Croatia and Cuba. That’s despite the fact that Americans spend more per capita on healthcare than anyone in the world — a full $10,000 per person, per year. But 5.9 infant deaths per 1000 births is a national average. Detroit’s infant mortality rate is double that and it’s not even the highest in the United States. (Some counties, particularly in the south, have infant mortality rates that near 20 percent.) Why is Detroit in this situation? Well, infant mortality is heavily correlated with demographics. The infant mortality rate among black Americans is 11 deaths per 1000 live births.

Among the leading causes of infant death are birth defects, preterm births, and low birth weight. Research shows that all of those factors are exacerbated when parents struggle with low income. Given the recent economic devastation in Detroit, it’s no wonder then that the infant mortality rate is so high. When people are unable to pay for care before or after the birth of their child, the consequences can be dire.

The Detroit funeral home at the center of the controversy has been quick to point out that the infant bodies received, that remained unburied, were unclaimed by parents. And it makes some sense that an impoverished parent, who may have just experienced the loss of their preterm infant, would leave the body unclaimed. Burials are expensive, particularly in urban areas.

When Americans hear phrases like “infant mortality rates” those words are abstractions. The numbers associated with those words are equally abstract. But now, in Detroit, the problem has been rendered concrete. The problem has taken the form of a pile of corpses. It is horrific and also critical that America doesn’t look away.

America has a problem. It is allowing infants to die due to causes like poverty and lack of access to healthcare. But poverty can be helped by social programs. Healthcare can be improved. Can, but won’t be. Not as long as Washington is run by conservatives actively attempting to cut away the social safety net.

But America’s problem with infant mortality is no longer abstract. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, there are 73 very real reminders — 73 very tiny bodies that speak to a need for change. Maybe they’ll help.