Infant health deserves careful research, not partisan bickering
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 healthcare 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 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, births that show even the slightest sign of life — no matter how small or premature — are counted as live births. This isn’t so elsewhere in the world.
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 women are more likely to give birth to underweight babies if they live within 1.9 miles of a fracking site. The authors controlled for the mothers’ age, race, and education levels. Yet they failed to control for income, fatally undermining their conclusions.
Here’s why. Many fracking sites are in low-income areas. Innumerable studies show 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 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 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, 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. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter March 2018). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.