There’s a peculiar story in the newspapers today based on a study by Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, and if you frequent Club Troppo, John Quiggin’s blog or other economics blogs these names will be familiar to you.
Almost 700 mothers delayed giving birth so they could receive higher baby bonus payments that took effect from July last year, a study has found.
This story spawned a disgusting hatefest on news.com.au and similar forums, with all the usual suspects getting an airing: bogans, young single mums (Boo!), plasma tvs, dole bludgers, “natural selection”. You know the sort of thing. Like this gem from “Bruce”:
Disgusting. When will Australian mothers show some class? Caesarian’s beacause they are lazy [Naturally, Bruce gave birth to all his children himself, so he’s right across this subject] and now crossing their legs for taxpayers money… I truly pity the children of these creatures.
haha, this would be the first time in history that the welfare mothers have kept there [sic] legs closed….
Gans and Leigh both blog the Baby Bonus story in more detail, here and here. They’re too civilised to indulge in the kind of crude banter referred to above, of course, but even for Gans the urge to make a passing reference to “a plasma TV” is too great.
Among the stentorian tones of the economists and the spittle-flecked rage of the news.com.au wingnuts, “Pidge of Brisbane”, who is over 60, put her hand up and quietly said:
I wish someone could tell me how you hold back a baby that is ready to come out.
Thank you, Pidge of Brisbane, for pointing out the bleeding (and pushing, and yelling) obvious. If my reading of the news reports and the original report is correct, you’ll see that the “delayed” births were heavily weighted towards elective caesarians or induced labours. I believe there are ways to delay labour medically, but if it’s a full-term baby which is ready to come, it’d be a hell of an intervention and I don’t see many doctors in our busy and understaffed hospitals agreeing to it for a non-medical reason. In short, they’re talking about babies being “delayed” but these are still pre-term babies.
If, in fact, these babies are just being allowed to be born closer to the time when their mums’ bodies make this imperative, then who exactly is being harmed? I’m not much of a naturist when it comes to the birthing issue – Loved the epidural, thanks- but I think the natural process of birth is simply being pushed to one side in favour of, yes, an over-medicalised definition of the process. If you have scheduled an elective caesarian or other procedure before your “due date”, and you then decide to delay that elective procedure, then you are merely… well, following the course of a normal pregnancy. If you can imagine such a thing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the newspaper. Here’s Gans’ summing up of the problem as he sees it. This follows very closely the conclusion of the report itself, which touches briefly on the hypothetical possibility that physical harm might result but makes it very clear that the focus of the report is with the disruption of the hospital system and economic management, not with ZOMG Mothers killing their babies:
People have choices and respond to incentives. What we donít want is a normal, stable and predictable medical environment being disrupted by arbitrary incentives being handed down from above by governments. It is completely unwarranted. And to see it repeat itself again amounts to “nano-economic” mismanagement of a high order.
The original report doesn’t give any evidence of harm caused to babies as a result of this birth spike. In fact, it’s out of scope of the report. It’s mentioned as a hypothetical possibility (with some cherry-picked arse-covering doctor quotes along the lines that something bad might happen.) Apart from that, the focus is clearly on the disruption to the hospital system.
So, in that case, why is the AGE news report titled “Baby bonus a health risk, say doctors”? The report was by two economists, not doctors. Oh, I get it! They’re both PhDs, so they’re doctors! But wait – the report was about spikes in births causing disruption to the health system, and how the Baby Bonus is a bad policy generally. The “health risk” was a kite that was flown speculatively, but there was no actual morbidity study included in the report. Oh, I get it! ZOMG Mothers are Killing their Babies for Welfare payments makes a rather dry economists’ report into a juicy story!
Here’s what an actual obstetrician says:
Doctors say there is no way they would allow prospective mothers to do anything dangerous when it comes to childbirth.
Dr Chris Tippett is the president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
“It’s very difficult to plan when your baby’s going to be delivered that far ahead of time,” she said.
“We know that 4 per cent of babies deliver on the date that we best calculate and what I’m saying is in fact the women who would be able to defer the deliveries – the women who would have had planned caesarean sections – often they’re planned at, say, 38 weeks and one or two days.
“There’d be no harm in transferring those to 39 weeks and two days.
“I think I’m correct in saying that last time that this occurred and people looked at the data more closely, it seemed likely that this effect was associated with people deferring things like caesarean sections.”
One, the voices raised in opposition to the over-medicalisation of birth – especially the scheduling of births with elective caesars and inductions – have often been women. Their charge that such scheduling was often done with the convenience of medical professionals in mind has never captured the public imagination, so we have continued with the elective caesars and the rest of it. Now someone has come up with a report showing that some women may have turned that very system to their – the mothers’ – advantage, and suddenly it’s time for a blamefest. Oh the irony.
Two: it was depressing to read the outpouring of hatred and bile against a hypothetical population of mothers who are all in the eighth grade, selfish, TV-buying harlots. The AGE and news.com.au articles highlighted the misogynist and vicious streak in our population – women commenters as well as men – which still survives and thrives, and which the internet brings out, blinking, from under its usual rock. (The ire is directed as much at poor people in general as it is against women.) It would have been great if Gans and Leigh had made some reference to the inappropriateness of their response, and distanced themselves from it, rather than just whistling and talking amongst themselves with arms folded while the Two-Minute Hate went on around them. After all, they must have known that “Baby Bonus a Health risk, say doctors” was not an accurate description of the conclusions of their report.