Monday, January 30, 2012

Race and birth weight

There have been many debates on whether or not your race determines your life. Starting as early as when you are conceived, and later affecting your entire life span. Although it is an ambiguous and controversial topic, studies have shown that infant mortality has been higher in African American babies compared to white babies. The question is why? Both social and biological factors are looked upon when studying these two race groups yet it is neither a social or biological factor which will determine your child's survival rate, birth weight, and health risks during their life span. It is a mixture of bits and pieces of your culture as well as your biological structure and race. On page 37 of The Starting Gate it states that, “Women living in highly segregated areas are more likely to have low incomes, be unmarried, and be less educated than those living in less segregated areas and these characteristics have all been shown to increase the risk of unhealthy birth outcomes.” The environment in which the mother resides while she is pregnant has an impact on her baby because if she is uneducated and isn’t around needed resources she has a greater chance of being exposed to harmful activities such as drinking or smoking. Also being without the support of a husband she may be more stressed and not mentally prepared for raising a child alone. On page 45 it states that, “… infants of different races may ‘naturally’ come in different sizes due to genetic variations between two populations.” I think that the comparison between the two races is unfair, being that there are biological differences and what is considered normal for one race might be considered abnormal or in this case under weight for the other. “If black babies are ‘naturally’ smaller than white babies, low birth weight for a black baby may not indicate the same level of physiological immaturity, and hence health risk, that it does for a white baby.”(p45) I think this is crucial to the studies because if African American babies tend to be birth, then they were born at a normal weight and there might be no difference in low birth weight when looking at these 2 races after all.

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  1. This portion of the reading also intrigued me while I was reading. Because a majority of the book explains the vast effect a mother’s health and uterus can have on the baby, it was eye-opening to see that low weight birth may be due to a “natural tendency toward smaller babies” (46). I agree with Patrycja that it is unfair to compare the weights of different races, using the same standards. However, because of the opposing argument that “West African born mothers gave birth to babies who are larger than those of African American women”, I realized that it may be necessary to use the same standards. Because we are using one standard, there are such big differences in results from comparing Black babies and White people. I feel that using these extreme results can actually help improve these issues since society can be aware of the best results. Knowing the differences and cases from each end of the spectrum can provide a good guideline for the in-between cases as well.

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  3. I disagree that it is unfair to compare birth weights of different races using the same standards in terms of biological factors. In light of the human genome project and what scientists have learned about genetics from it, studies have increasingly shown that genetic differences between races don't really go further than skin deep. There actually is much more genetic variation within local populations than there are between what we define as "races." This leads me to believe that low birth weight is not merely a factor of Blacks having infants that "naturally" weight less than White infants, but is more tied into social issues. The notion that race can biologically determine health outcomes may actually be perpetuating the problem by leading people to take less action to actually fix the social issues that may be causing disparities in health among races. In addition, medicine should focus on individuals as opposed to grouping people into categories based on race or class, and treat the patient based on his or her needs, while it is the job of health policy makers and those who work in the field of public health to effectively provide solutions to problems such as disparities in birth weight that stem from social inequality.

  4. Building on Vittoria's response, it is also important to recognize that these "biological" differences, in this case lower birth rates for African American babies, are due to the influence of socioeconomic factors from previous generations. This cycle of poverty, i.e. living in highly segregated areas of low income, less education, out of wedlock births, limited resources, etc., has influenced health and low birth weight over multiple generations. As a result, what started off as a social factor, has become ingrained in the African American community and is now seen as a genetic factor, ignoring the social disparities in our society.

    As mentioned in the book, "members of a racial group are likely to share relatively few characteristics beyond skin color (47)" and, as Vittoria mentioned, the results of the human genome project also indicate that racial differences are only skin deep. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that these differences in birth rate are genetic. They are instead, due to the influence of generations of social factors. This explains why African American babies are "naturally" smaller than their white counterparts.

    This does not mean that what is considered low weight for a white baby should be considered normal for a black baby. The influence of social factors across generations does not mean that the standard for what is considered to be healthy should be changed based on race, since there are no genetic differences across races. Accepting these differences as genetic rather than socially influenced just ignores the social disparities in our society, and as mentioned in the above response, prevents people form taking action. It would be unfair to accept lower birth rates for African American babies as normal due to "genetic" differences, since there are none.