As the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, there are many ways to reflect on the impact this tragedy has had on the United States—politically, economically, socially. But one demographer’s look into the birth outcomes for women of Arab descent in the months after 9/11 sheds light on a little discussed impact: the health of their children born during a time of heightened discrimination and harassment.
For the 2006 study, Diane S. Lauderdale, a professor in the department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago, compared the birth outcomes for Arabic-named women in California in the six months before and after 9/11. Her results were published in the journal Demography, where she found a “significantly elevated relative risk of poor birth outcomes” for this group, and no increase in risk for any other women. Arabic-named women were 34 percent more likely to deliver low-birthweight children in the six months after 9/11 than in the six months before.
Research shows links between the experience of discrimination and a heightened risk of preterm labor and low infant birth weight. Stressful experiences can cause an increase in hormones that can initiate labor. If labor is begun too soon developmental problems can continue throughout their lifetime.
The children that Lauderdale captured in her study would be turning 15 in the next six months. A 2011 study of children who were born premature showed that at age 17, “physical health, growth, and subtle neurological outcomes were poorer in the preterm groups.”Another study from the University of Michigan found that low birth weight children were 30 percent less likely to be in good health in childhood, and that they scored lower on academic achievement tests.
Most academic research into the link between discrimination and health relies on surveys that ask people to describe their experiences with discrimination. Lauderdale’s study stands out because she compared health outcomes before and after a major event when there was a heightened level of discrimination toward a particular group.
The data Lauderdale used to do her comparison came from California birth certificates, which include infant birth-weight, gestational age, mother’s race and birthplace. There is no race or ethnicity category that would distinguish women of Arab origins—the options are: White, Black, American Indian, specific Asian and Pacific Islander groups and Other. So Lauderdale developed an algorithm that predicted people’s Arab-origin by evaluating surnames using information from Social Security card applications.
Lauderdale then pulled women with Arab-origin names who gave birth in the year surrounding 9/11, and split them into two groups depending on whether they delivered before or after 9/11. She found that the women who delivered in the six months after 9/11 had a 34 percent increase in their likelihood of delivering a low-birth weight baby. Further, when she separated out women whose newborns also were given ethnically distinctive names, the likelihood was even greater—those babies were twice as likely to be born low birth weight. She can’t say exactly why that is the case, but hypothesized that babies with ethnically-distinct names might be more recent immigrants. No other group of women showed an increase in their likelihood of low birth weight and preterm labor.
Without qualitative data to go along with Lauderdale’s quantitative analysis, such as interviews with the women captured in her study about that time period and what they experienced, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what about that time period had such a negative impact on maternal health. “Exactly what it is you can’t say from the data,” Lauderdale told Colorlines via phone. “The fear of physical violence, or reduced economic circumstances, or a general anxiety about the future.”
Research into the linkages between discrimination and poor maternal health tend to focus on Black women, because they have the highest likelihood when compared to White women—often 3 to 4 times higher rates of maternal death and disease. While Lauderdale’s work remains an “orphan study” because the results have not been replicated in another similar group, it shines a unique light on to just how significantly an increased climate of hostility may impact our health for a lifetime.