2000 yo baby grave, Covid’s baby bust, car seats as contraception, fetus-thieves | Rabbit Holes Ep 2

Rabbit Holes is a semi-regular reaction-style series of baby-related news or topics that I find tempting to follow down a research rabbit hole, but must resist, for the time being. I think you’ll find them interesting too, so let’s get started!

Ancient Roman Baby’s Grave

The 2000-year-old grave of a one-year-old was found in France (which would have been Gaul at the time). While adults in the area were commonly cremated, children were buried on their parents’ land. The baby was wrapped in a shroud which was secured with a copper pin, and laid inside a coffin closed with metal nails and labelled with an iron tag.

This baby’s parents are believed to have been wealthy due to the number and quality of the grave goods, which included over twenty items: terra cotta and glass vessels containing oils, medicines, and lots of meat: half a pig, three hams and other cuts of pork, and two headless chickens.

Also inside the grave was an iron ring attached to a bent metal rod, which is thought to be a toy, as well as the remains of a puppy, who was wearing a collar with metal decorations and a small bell. The association between dogs and infant burials goes way back to the Hellenistic period (third to second centuries BCE). The remains of dogs and infants were found interred together in a Hellenistic well, considered a ritual animal sacrifice for purification after disease or war. 

“Entire dogs, most of them very young or even foetal, have also been found together with the bones of human infants, some even in gestation, deposited in wells near the Sebasteion at Eretria and on the Athenian Agora.”

(Snyder, 1999; Chenal-Velarde, 2006).

Further Reading: https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199589425.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199589425-e-020

Freakonomics Podcast

Freakonomics Podcast, “How much do we really care about children?” ep 447, 13, Jan 2021.

Baby Bust

The episode starts off with economist Melissa McCarthy who researches economic trends that influence reproduction, families, child welfare, etc. Her latest research has been about what we can expect in terms of birth rates this year, as well as during the post-pandemic economic recovery, which could take a few years. Based on data from the 1918 flu pandemic, which preceded a “baby bust” (the opposite of a baby boom). She adjusted for the then strong post-war economy (i.e. employment) and the lack of reliable and legal contraception in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Based on her results she expects an even stronger baby bust for 2021 and in the next few years, as some families’ financial situation will never fully recover. This is on top of the historically low birth rate we already saw in 2019, plus the reduction in immigration (which normally puts the US in positive population growth) due to political policies and the pandemic, we may see negative growth. While negative growth can be good in terms of more resources for each child, it also increases population ageing, strains social security, and restricts the growth of the economy in general as older workers are less productive before the younger generation are ready to join the workforce. 

Further Reading:
Kearney, Melissa and Phillip B. Levine. 17 Dec 2020. “The coming COVID-19 baby bust: Update.” The Brookings Institute.

Car Seats as Contraception

Shifting gears (see what I did there?) to car seats as contraception. I worked as a nanny for well over a decade, and I used convertible car seats that worked from birth through preschool. Between clients, I had to flip seats and adjust the belts and other doohickies. Fortunately, I knew what I was doing as I was trained as a volunteer “car seat installation tech”. As much as I appreciated feeling like “my” littles were safe and comfortable, I really really hated dealing with car seats.

/ranty tangent incoming/ I’ve advocated for car seats being just for cars (and tornado warnings), not as baby carriers, and for the love of all that is holy, never ever shove your clip-in car seat onto a shopping cart seat back: a car seat bound baby goes in the basket of the shopping cart. And the phrase “travel system” gives me a gagging sensation: “With our 3-in-1 system, your baby will never know the touch of another human. Brilliant.” … but whatever floats your boat. It’s mostly the travel system commercials featuring a baby in the car seat between stroller to car and back, from sunrise to sunset, that irk me.

What were we talking about? Oh yes,

Car seats in the US are mandatory, like, to a ridiculous degree: some hospitals will not allow parents to leave following childbirth without strapping their baby into one, even if they don’t use cars. For parents who do use cars, car seats even for a tiny baby often take up more than one seat. For families with two children still using car seats, having a third often requires trading in a sedan for (cue suspenseful music) a mini-van. Egads.

This is the issue that economists David Solomon and Jordan Nickerson theorized would influence the decision of marginal families against having a third car seat aged child. They went through all of the state and federal laws on car seats from the early 80s when they were introduced and then compared that with census information to see if stricter car seat laws correlated with a reduced birth rate for families who already had two children who required car seats by law. Conclusion: yes, it did seem to have an influence, lowering annual birth probability by 0.73 percentage points, which translated to 8,000 births in 2017, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980. 

David Solomon claimed that,

“For every child’s life that’s saved by these [car seat] laws, somewhere between 57 and 141 children aren’t born.”

Levitt didn’t agree with that perspective on it, noting the differences between a child already born and a conception that never occurs. Levitt said that our focus should be more on maximizing the quality of the lives of people already born than maximizing the population. I agree.

Further Reading:
Nickerson, Jordan and David H. Solomon. 22 Sept 2020. “Car Seats as Contraception.” Social Science Research Network (SSRN).

The Seat Belt Solution

Back in the 1970s, there were cars designed with infant and child safety in mind, that is, infant and child seats built into the car for use when needed. In my opinion, that is the way it should be, with no issues of seats not fitting the vehicle or of having to transfer seats between vehicles. If we do have fleets of autonomous vehicles for ride-sharing in the future, built-in infant and car seats will be necessary (if we still find car seats useful). But when third-party car seat manufacturers got into the game, the car manufacturers were relieved to not be on the line for the safety of all ages of passengers. The car seat manufacturers had a very lucrative business plan: the laws being passed required everyone to use them and they were manufactured out of cheap materials, like seatbelt webbing, styrofoam and plastic– with little innovation for decades.

Studies show that 70% of car seats are improperly installed but even when they are properly installed, are they any better for children than the regular seatbelt?

According to data collected by Steven Levitt from the NITSA on fatal crashes plus the data from states that collect non-fatal crash data, comparing car seats to seat belts to no seat belts, his answer is: not really.

For two to six-year-olds, adult seat belts performed as well as car seats in preventing death and serious injuries (and not using any restraint is tantamount to negligent homicide IMO). There is no data for the under twos because nearly all children under two are secured into car seats for practicality and Levitt didn’t have anything to compare to. In another paper he did with Joe Doyle, they found that car seats were 25% better at preventing the least serious injuries than seat belts. The research was published in 2005-6 and later replicated by another team who found the same results. 

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (the host of Freakonomics) published the Freakonomics book together. At the time of Levitt’s car seat research, they were working for the New York Times and they decided to look into the crash test dummy research comparing car seats to seat belts. There was only one problem: there wasn’t ANY. At all. Curiouser and Curiouser.

They decided to do the experiments themselves.

First, they couldn’t find crash test places to agree to it as they made their money from car seat manufacturers, and others claimed they weren’t set up for it, even though their whole schtick was crashing cars with dummies in car seats. Finally, they found one crash test company that agreed, it was run by a scientist who thought this was valuable research, however, the company would only do it if they agreed not to identify them or their location.

Once the testing was underway, the tech in charge of buckling the three-year-old-sized dummy into the adult seatbelt didn’t want to do it. It felt wrong. He was afraid the experiment would break his dummy. But the experiment went forwards and the results? The car seat and seatbelts performed equally well. The techs couldn’t believe it. They ran it again. Same results. If they had submitted the data alone on the seatbelt crash results, it would have passed the safety standards for a car seat. 

I bet you can imagine the reception their article in the NYTs got. Go read it:

Levitt and Dubner, 10 July 2005. “The Seat-Belt Solution.” The New York Times.

I find this fascinating. I have advocated for using a rear-facing car seat until the kid reached the height or weight limits of the seat in the rear-facing position, typically after two years of age. I read about the internal decapitation of toddlers in front-facing car seats, the slogan was: “broken leg or a broken neck”. As previously mentioned, I volunteered to help families install car seats properly because I felt it was so important not only to use a car seat but to use it exactly right. But maybe all of that is unsupported by evidence. Personally, even if adult seatbelts are peachy keen in terms of crash safety, I think I would prefer the car seat with the five-point harness and childproof buckle just to keep the little blighters restrained, even if that means dislocating my shoulder to retrieve the gd sippy cup again. I do not trust a two-, three-, or four-year-old to stay in their seat of their own volition while I am trying to concentrate on the road. 

Further Viewing:

“Crash Test Dummy | I Didn’t Know That” National Geographic, April 9 2013, Youtube. 

Do We Really Care About Children?

At the heart of it, car seat laws were intended to help keep infants and children safe, however, the current set-up has the car seat manufacturers making bank without much innovation for decades, creating car seats that are apparently not much safer than just using adult seat belts, while the car manufacturer enjoys indemnity from the protection of their youngest passengers.

The host of the podcast summed it up as:

“Insidious way we sometimes settle for solutions that satisfy everyone except the constituency these solutions were intended to help.”

Stephen Levitt, Freakonomics Podcast

Researchers like Melissa McCarthy believe it’s down to children not being a political priority, they don’t vote (yet) and they have no lobbyists, but they are literally the future and should be helped to reach their full potential, so our future can reach its fullest potential. 

Further Reading:
Jones Lauren E. and Nicolas R. Ziebarth. 24 May 2017. “U.S. Child Safety Laws: Are they Effective, and Who Complies?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 36(3): 584-607

Pieces of a Woman (Netflix).

Movies: Pieces of a Woman, on Netflix. I just haven’t had time to sit down and watch this but it is about the fallout after a homebirth ends in tragedy when their main midwife is busy with another birth and sends her replacement… to which ask: how many people have had a hospital birth where the OB you’ve had through your pregnancy isn’t there for the birth and it’s totally acceptable, even expected? In a review on the Arts Desk, they react to that alone by saying they want to yell, “Get her to a hospital!” I haven’t seen the film, but simply having a different midwife attend a homebirth is not a medical emergency any more than having a different OB attend a hospital birth is not a medical emergency, assuming both are equally qualified.

Anyway, the film stars Vanessa Kirby as Martha and Shia LaBeouf as Sean, her husband, Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother, and Molly Parker as the midwife who ends up having to defend herself in court. I am curious about how they portrayed the homebirth and what exactly caused the tragic outcome, and why the midwife is “vilified” (that’s how Rotten Tomatoes put it) and facing Martha in court. It’s set in Boston, so I imagine it will show American cultural biases on healthcare, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, etc etc etc. 

Further Reading:

Rotten Tomatoes Review

The Arts Desk Review

Pieces of a Woman was originally written for the stage by a Polish couple after their own tragic home birth experience in 2018. I wondered what their reasons for opting for a homebirth were and I learned that a 2018 survey of Polish women who gave birth in a hospital found that 81% were violently abused by having procedures done without their consent, as well as suffering verbal abuse.

It used to be even worse, in the late ’90s Poland started a program called “Child Birth with Dignity”. In 2011, Poland adopted WHO’s standards for maternity care which included a woman’s right to choose the place and method of birth, and the adoption of these policies saw huge a decline in infant mortality. Yet, hospitals in Poland are still places where 81% of women felt violently abused in 2018. I know where I would be choosing to give birth. But how does it compare to childbirth in the US?

Further Reading:

Baranowska, Barbara, et al. 23 Dec 2019. “Is there respectful maternity care in Poland? Women’s views about care during labor and birth.” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 19(520).

WHO, Aug 2015. “Raising the voices of pregnant women in Poland.”

In an article by the Texas Tribune (link below), Marissa Evans compares childbirth in Poland and Texas. In the United States, there are no “childbirth with dignity” standards and for the most part, a woman’s right to choose where and how she gives birth is not recognized. Unlike modern Poland, which has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world, the US has the highest maternal death rate in the industrialized world. In Poland, midwives are responsible for most of the maternity care, whether in a hospital, in a birth center, or at home. In the US, OB-Gyns are responsible for most of the maternity care in hospitals and often repudiate the role of midwives and believe that homebirths should be illegal. The history of the American beef between OB-Gyns and midwives gets into the racial segregation of hospitals and the demonization of lay midwives who attended homebirths for those who couldn’t afford and/or weren’t allowed hospital births.. this is why this is called “rabbit holes” and I must resist following them.

Evans, Marissa. 3 July 2018. “In Poland, midwives play a significant role in childbirth. In Texas? Not so much.” The Texas Tribune.

That was a long tangent but these are all the things that come to my mind reading about this film that I haven’t even seen. [laughing] I hope to check it out soon. If you’ve seen it, what did you think about it?  

Whang! covers Ron’s Angels, Sex Cells in 1999

Sliding right on over to Youtube, as a warning, the following may not be safe for work or younger/sensitive audiences. There’s a discussion of porn, exploitation, and infertility. Also, it’s Justin Whang’s channel so, if you know, you know.

Justin Whang of Whang! did a recent video about photographer Ron Harris’s 1999 website, Ron’s Angels in which he was apparently facilitating the auction of his models’ eggs, for between $15 and $150k (and there was one male model selling his sperm). The website said that it was only a venue to hook up potential buyers with the models selling their sex cells. The models had various reasons for doing it, for example, some claimed to need help paying for college.

Context –the history– is important: at the time, in the late 90s, the solicitation of eggs from college students in college newspapers was making headlines and the usual American moral panic ensued. Ron’s website piggybacked on the publicity of both human-eggs-for-sale and the world-wide-web as this scary place. For example, on October 23, 1999, a New York Times article by Carey Goldberg, “On Web, Models auction their eggs to bidders for beautiful children” quoted one fertility specialist as saying Ron’s Angels was a

“melding of Darwin-based eugenics, playboy style sensibilities and eBay type commerce.”

However, it’s possible that this website wasn’t what it seemed: first, it was full of what seemed to be a satire of hyper-capitalist culture and objectification of beauty. …Or it may have simply been a publicity stunt to attract people to his website, which then lead to his pornography site. Yet, Ron always maintained that it was a legit venue for human egg sales, noting that he was qualified because he had been a horse breeder. Riiiiigggghhht.

Further Reading:
Goldberg, Carey. 23 Oct 1999. “On Web, Models Auction Their Eggs to Bidders for Beautiful Children.” The New York Times. (you can see the print edition using the “Times Machine”)

Further Viewing:
Ron’s Angels, 27 Nov 1999 on the Way Back Machine

Dr Grande covers Lisa Montgomery, Fetus Thief

Dr Grande covered the case of Lisa Montgomery, the woman federally executed on January 13th 2001 by Trump’s executive order (part of that post-failed-coup killing spree). If you are not familiar with her case, it was a horrific murder which led to warnings for pregnant people who were meeting strangers locally to purchase used goods.

In 2004, Lisa Montgomery posted infant clothes for sale to lure in a pregnant woman to meet her in a private location. Lisa travelled out of state to the meeting location where she murdered heavily pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett, after which Lisa removed the baby from Bobbie Jo’s body and tried to pass it off as her own.

Lisa had been claiming to be pregnant for some time prior to this, however, it was known that she had had a tubal ligation. When she showed up back home with a newborn baby, her ex-husband was concerned about where she got the baby, assuming she’d kidnapped it. He contacted the police.

Dr Grande, who is a licensed mental health counsellor, gave his breakdown of Lisa’s history: the crime, and the trial including evidence that was prohibited, such as her brain scans, as well as her execution. Dr Grande’s motivation with these stories is not to diagnose or excuse criminal behaviour but to help people understand the events as a mental health professional would.

Related to the Lisa Montgomery case, as horrific as it was, it is not an isolated type of murder. There is a documentary on the Real Stories YouTube channel about “fetus thieves.” [it’s been removed]. Disturbingly, many of the murderers are women desperate to prove their fake pregnancies are real by any means necessary.

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