Column: Infant health deserves careful research
Want to win a political argument? Accuse your opponent of hurting children.
That's the lesson behind two recent studies regarding the well-being of America's babies.
A new report from the United Nations Children's Fund finds that America's infant mortality rate is only slightly better than Sri Lanka's. The left seized this finding to call for single-payer health care.
Another recent analysis suggests that fracking -- the drilling method that extracts natural gas and oil from shale rock -- can harm babies in the womb.
In both cases, the critical issue of infant health is being used to advance a political agenda. But both analyses are methodologically flawed and do more to obscure the truth than to uncover it.
For years, proponents of government-run health care have used data on childhood health to condemn our country's private insurance system. For instance, they are quick to note that infant mortality rates in the United States are considerably higher than they are in countries such as Canada, France, and the United Kingdom -- all of which have full or a version of single-payer systems.
But such differences may have more to do with how different countries measure infant mortality rates than with healthcare policy. In the United States, for instance, births that show even the slightest sign of life -- no matter how small or premature -- are counted as live births. If a baby dies just moments after being born, it's considered an infant death. This isn't so elsewhere in the world, and particularly not in Europe.
As the World Health Organization notes, "[i]t has also been common practice in several countries (e.g. Belgium, France, Spain) to register as live births only those infants who survived for a specified period beyond birth." In other European countries, babies must meet certain weight or height requirements in order to be considered alive at birth.
Discrepancies like these make international comparisons of infant mortality highly unreliable. And yet, that hasn't stopped liberals from using such misleading statistics to advance their political agenda -- and muddling an important issue in the process.
This same disregard for accuracy can be seen in a recent article in Science Advances, which suggests that women are more likely to give birth to underweight babies if they live within 1.9 miles of a fracking site. To reach this conclusion, the authors controlled for such variables as the mothers' age, race, and education levels. Yet for lack of data, they failed to control for income. And this omission fatally undermines the conclusion they reach.
Here's why. Many of the nation's fracking sites are in low-income areas. Innumerable studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between low income and low birthweight. This socioeconomic factor -- not fracking -- offers a far more plausible explanation for underweight babies than nearby drilling activity.
The study is replete with other logical inconsistencies. For instance, the authors find the risk of giving birth to an underweight baby highest for women living within 1 kilometer -- about 5/8th of a mile -- of a well. Risk was elevated for women who lived between 2 and 3 kilometers away. But not in between: the likelihood of an underweight baby plummeted for women who lived between 1 and 2 kilometers from a well.
That doesn't make any sense. If pollution from fracking were the true cause of low birth weights, then the risk should decline linearly the farther away expectant mothers live.
The article's conclusion runs directly counter to the findings of much-respected research. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, for example, has conducted several studies and found no correlation between proximity to fracking and birth defects.
Promoting the health of America's youngest children is one of the worthiest causes imaginable -- and it demands careful, accurate research. When partisans advance ill-founded theories in order to cast blame on opponents, they stand in the way of a goal that ought to transcend politics.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute.