Black infants born near police shootings of unarmed African Americans more likely to be born prematurely and have lower birth weight: Study

Harvard University sociologist says in utero exposure to police killings of unarmed blacks in the residential environment markedly reduced the health of black infants but not for other groups.


                            Black infants born near police shootings of unarmed African Americans more likely to be born prematurely and have lower birth weight: Study
(Source : Getty Images)

Police shootings of unarmed black Americans -- such as the August 9, 2014 incident in which 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot in Ferguson -- have brought renewed and national attention to police killings in the US. A sociologist from Harvard University now says that such incidents could also be harming the health of unborn black infants by causing premature births and low birth weights.

According to the analysis, pregnant black women give birth to infants with smaller birth weights and shorter gestational ages (born prematurely) if they live near the site of incidents in which unarmed blacks are killed by police during their first or second trimester.

"The findings show that police killings of unarmed blacks substantially decrease the birth weight and gestational age of black infants residing nearby," says Joscha Legewie from the Department of Sociology, Harvard University, US, in the study. 

"I find that the effect of police killings is unique to unarmed black victims, which makes me confident that this is not just general violence and crime. The effect seems to be driven by the perceived injustice, discrimination, and fear related to police killings of unarmed black victims," he says. 

Exposure to a single police killing of an unarmed black individual during pregnancy accounts for as much as a third of the black-white gap in birth weight, says Legewie. According to the sociologist, the finding indicates that police violence is an "environmental stressor" that contributes to the "stark and enduring" black-white disparities in infant health. 

Legewie says that the results illustrate how police violence viewed as the result of "structural racism and discrimination" may affect the next generation of black Americans even before they are born, contributing to infant mortality and impacting cognitive development. 

Racial disparities in infant health are a major and persisting public health concern. "The infant mortality rate is now twice as high among (non-Hispanic) black compared to white infants: 11.3 per 1000 black versus 4.9 per 1000 white babies. The rate of low birth weight (below 2500 g) for non-Hispanic black women is 1.96 times higher than that for white women with similar disparities in premature birth (less than 37 weeks gestational age) and other indicators of infant health," says the study published in Science Advances. 

The study says that the infant mortality rate is now twice as high among (non-Hispanic) black compared to white infants: 11.3 per 1000 black versus 4.9 per 1000 white babies. (Getty Images)

The study explains birth weight and gestational age are not only related to infant death in the short term, the consequences are long term.

It says, "These racial disparities in infant health have long-term consequences for cognitive development, test scores, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other outcomes. A growing body of research highlights the importance of chronic stress-related to experiences of racism and discrimination in explaining the persisting black-white disparities in infant health and, ultimately, individual outcomes throughout the life course."

The analysis

To study the impact of police killings on infant health, Legewie linked statistics from 3.9 million births in California to data on 1,891 police killings in the state between 2005 and 2017, including 164 cases involving unarmed Black victims. 

He compared birth weight and gestational age for black infants in areas exposed to police violence before and after police killings of unarmed blacks. Legewie also compared the health of infants born to siblings who either were or were not exposed to police killings during pregnancy. 

The analysis suggests that only unborn infants whose mothers lived near an incident during the first or second trimester of pregnancy were affected, and the effect was limited to police killings of unarmed blacks.

The findings show that in utero exposure to police killings of unarmed blacks within 1 km of mother's residence substantially reduces the birth weight of black infants by 50 to over 80 g. 

The negative effect during the first and second trimesters provides evidence that police killings of unarmed blacks significantly decrease the health of unborn black infants residing nearby, says Legewie. 

"The size of this effect is substantial for exposure during the first and second trimesters. It corresponds to 0.10 to 0.15 standard deviations (sample standard deviation is 540.5 g) or a third to a fifth of the black-white gap in birth weight (sample gap is 242 g)," the findings state.

The analysis suggests that only unborn infants whose mothers lived near an incident during the first or second trimester of pregnancy were affected, and the effect was limited to police killings of unarmed blacks. (Getty Images)

Legewie further says such incidents did not impact or reduce the health of infants from other groups. The health disparities were also not identified for black infants when armed blacks or either armed or unarmed whites, or Hispanics were killed nearby.

According to the sociologist, the results provide causal evidence suggesting that extreme forms of police violence have broader consequences and spillover effects on the health of newborn infants. 

"There is no discernible effect on white and Hispanic infants or for police killings of armed blacks and other race victims, suggesting that the effect reflects stress and anxiety related to perceived injustice and discrimination. Police violence thus has spillover effects on the health of newborn infants that contribute to enduring black-white disparities in infant health and the inter-generational transmission of disadvantage at the earliest stages of life," says Legewie in the study. 

The findings have implications for public policy. They highlight the impact and social costs of police use of fatal force far beyond the victim and their family members, says Legewie. 

"Understanding the effects environmental stressors such as police violence have on infant health is important for the design and implementation of interventions that attempt to mitigate the negative consequences, reduce disparities in infant health and early child development, and promote a culture of health," he says.

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