Pregnant Mothers Exposed to Police Killings More Likely to Deliver Underweight Black Infants, Study Finds

Police killings of unarmed black victims may cause nearby mothers to give birth prematurely or to infants with a lower birth weight, according to a recent study published Wednesday by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The article evaluated every birth record in California in tandem with 1,891 police killings between 2005 and 2017. The records included information about birth weight, gestational age, the date of the birth and each mother's residential location and race.

In the United States, black people are more than three times likely to get shot by police than white people, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health. For black men, police violence is a leading cause of death, according to a 2019 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS).

These killings don't occur in a vacuum, but rather have "spillover effects" in their communities, according to the study by Joscha Legewie, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University.

For mothers living within 1 kilometer of police killings of unarmed black people, many saw reductions in their infant's birth weight by more than 80 grams. When it came to gestation, results were slightly less significant, but 12.3 percent of those mothers delivered their infants prematurely.

Notably, the same effects were not observed across other races. They also didn't hold when the killings happened farther away or involved an armed black victim. That could mean the killings create stress and anxiety related to perceived injustice and discrimination by police, according to Legewie. Along similar lines, the mothers could also be afraid for their own personal safety.

"Police killings evoke grief, collective anger, and hopelessness," Legewie wrote in the introduction, adding: "The trauma, anxiety, hopelessness, and fear about future police encounters are all stressors."

Unborn Infants Bear Burden of Police Shootings
People participate in a protest to mark the five year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with a police officer in the borough of Staten Island on July 17, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The infant mortality rate is 2.3 times higher among black people compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, low birth weight, which makes infants more likely to die, is more common among black mothers, too.

This study could help explain the gap. According to Legewie, exposure to just one police killing of an unarmed black person during pregnancy accounts for as much as a third of the black-white gap in birth weight.

About 850 people have been shot by police in the U.S. in 2019 alone, according to a Washington Post database. Among them, 150 are black men, according to data compiled by Statista. The information did not specify how many of those men were armed or unarmed.