Preterm births for Latina mothers increased after 2016 election, study finds

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A study released July 19 shows a significant jump in preterm births for Latina mothers in the nine months after the 2016 presidential election, according to a July 19 press release from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study looked at birth certificate data from 2009 to 2017 using an analysis called an “interrupted time series analysis.” According to Alison Gemmill, a UC Berkeley alumna and one of the co-authors of the study, this system estimates an expected trend for preterm birth rates after the 2016 presidential election based on data from years past and assuming that the election did not impact birth rates. Researchers then compared that model to the actual number of preterm births. The study found that their hypothesis was correct — the number of preterm births after the 2016 presidential election exceeded their model’s projections.

According to the press release, the study defined a preterm birth as a birth before 37 weeks of gestation. The study used preterm births as an indicator of maternal wellness for Latina women who were pregnant during the 2016 election, according to Gemmill.

“The research team … we’ve written lots of papers showing that maternal stress, so stress to pregnant women, affects their fetuses, and that in turn affects birth outcomes,” Gemmill said. “We used preterm birth because it’s measured very well in U.S. data.”

Fred Rivara — editor in chief of JAMA Network Open, the journal in which the study was published — offered another reason for the rise in preterm births after the 2016 election besides maternal stress on the “JAMA Network Open Editors’ Summary” podcast. According to Rivara, Latina women might be delayed in receiving or might not even receive prenatal care for fear of deportation in some states.

The number of preterm births after the presidential election exceeded the model’s projected number of births by 2,337, or roughly 3.5 percent, according to the press release. The implications of this report, Gemmill said, are “alarming.”

“We think this (study) adds another level of evidence, at least suggestive evidence, that the political environment might be driving this stuff,” Gemmill said.

UCSF professor Jacqueline Torres, the senior author of the paper, also pointed out that preterm births are an example of the consequences of intergenerational health impacts.

Gemmill said she received “hate mail” from detractors of the report and accusations that she believes she received in part because one of the co-authors of the report and the person in charge of the project’s statistical analysis, Ralph Catalano, is a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. Gemmill pointed out that Catalano has written a paper criticizing the use of data analysis to forward a political agenda — in Gemmill’s eyes, this makes Catalano “unbiased.”

“While there was no specific immigration policy passed or major enforcement action that took place on (the day of the presidential election), the election of the current US President may have had adverse consequences for population health because of the promises of mass deportation, the rollback of inclusive policies … and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that marked the campaign,” Torres said in an email.

Contact Lev Gordon-Feierabend at [email protected].