The more complaints of excessive force by police reported by neighborhood residents, the more likely it is that Black pregnant people living in that neighborhood will deliver preterm, according to findings from a new study presented January 28 at the virtual Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) 2021 Annual Pregnancy Meeting.
“We know there are significant racial disparities in preterm birth which aren’t fully explained by traditional risk factors, like being older, having health problems like high blood pressure, or limited income,” Alexa Freedman, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at NorthShore University HealthSystem and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, told Medscape Medical News. ”This has left many wondering if there are stressors unique to Black individuals that may be involved,” which has led to past research on the association of preterm birth with neighborhood segregation and historical “redlining” practices.
Black individuals have a substantially higher rate of preterm birth compared with all other racial and ethnic groups in the US: 13.8% of Black infants born between 2016 and 2018 were preterm, compared with 11.6% among Native Americans — the next highest group — and 9.1% among White women.
“Studies have shown that psychosocial stress contributes to preterm birth disparities, potentially through several physiologic pathways that impact pregnancy outcomes,” Freedman told attendees. “Pregnant Black individuals have been reported to experience greater psychosocial stress regardless of socioeconomic status, possibly secondary to experiences of racism and discrimination.”
Though past research has examined neighborhood disadvantage and violence as stressors potentially contributing to preterm birth, little data exist on police–community relationships or police violence and pregnancy outcomes, despite being a “particularly salient stressor for Black individuals,” Freedman said. “Among pregnant Black individuals, prenatal depression has been correlated with concern about negative interactions between youth in their community and police.” To cite one example of the prevalence of racial bias in policing, she noted that “Chicago police are almost 10 times more likely to use force when interacting with a Black individual as compared to a white individual.”
The researchers therefore sought to determine whether a relationship existed between preterm birth rates and complaints regarding use of excessive force by police in the same neighborhood. They compiled records on all singleton live births from one Chicago hospital between March 2008 and March 2018, excluding those who lived outside Chicago, had a missing address, listed their race as “other,” or lacked data for specific other confounders.
Assessing Police Complaints Within Census Blocks
The researchers obtained data on police complaints in Chicago from the Invisible Institute’s Citizen Police Data Project. They focused only on complaints of excessive use of force, “such as unnecessary physical contact and unnecessary display of a weapon,” Freedman said. They considered a person exposed in the neighborhood if a complaint was reported in her census block in the year leading up to birth. During their study period, more than 6000 complaints of excessive force were reported across an estimated 70% of the blocks.
The study population had an average age of 31 and included 59.5% White, 12% Black, 20% Hispanic, and 8.5% Asian people. Just over half the pregnancies (55%) were first-time pregnancies, and 3.3% of the population had a history of preterm birth (before 37 weeks). The researchers also gathered data to adjust for the study population’s:
parity (number of times the woman has given birth)
population size of census block
exposure to a homicide on the block in the year leading up to birth
socioeconomic status by block (based on a composite of median home value, median income, percentage of a high school diploma, and percentage employed)
“Those who were lived in a block with an excessive force complaint were more likely to be Black, more likely to deliver preterm, and more likely to be exposed to homicide,” Freedman told attendees.
The proportion of pregnant women exposed to police complaints was 15.8%, and 10.2% lived in neighborhoods where a homicide occurred in the year leading up to birth. Within the group exposed to a homicide, 16.5% lived in a neighborhood with an excessive force complaint, and 9.1% did not.
Overall, 8.1% of the population gave birth preterm. When stratified by whether or not they lived in a block with an excessive complaint, the researchers found the proportion of preterm births was higher among those who did than those who did not (9.3% vs 7.8%)
Both before and after adjusting for confounders, Black people were the only racial/ethnic group who had a significantly increased risk of preterm birth if they lived on a block with a complaint. They were nearly 30% more likely to deliver preterm if an excessive force complaint had been reported nearby (odds ratio [OR], 1.29). The odds of preterm birth were slightly elevated for White people and slightly reduced for Hispanic and Asian people, but none of those associations reached significance.
In a sensitivity analysis comparing 189 Black individuals to themselves, the researchers compared those who had one preterm birth and one term birth. They found that the preterm birth was 32% more likely to occur in a year when an excessive force complaint was filed after adjusting for age and birth order (OR, 1.32; 95% CI, 0.82 – 2.13).
“Police violence reflects just one component of structural racism,” Freedman told Medscape Medical News. “Our findings highlight the need to more thoroughly consider how these systemic and structural factors contribute to disparities in maternal and fetal health.”
Clinical and Policy Implications
The clinical implications of these findings focus on the need for obstetric clinical teams to understand patients’ stressors and to provide support and resources, according to Freedman’s mentor, Ann Borders, MD, MSc, MPH, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at NorthShore and Evanston Hospital, and a clinical associate professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
“Potential strategies include training on improved listening and respectful patient-centered care, such as provided by the CDC Hear Her campaign, and consideration of universal social determinants of health screening during obstetric care,” Borders told Medscape Medical News.
Though the study included a large sample size and allowed the researchers to control for individual and neighborhood characteristics, Freedman acknowledged that census blocks may or may not correlate with the way individuals define their own neighborhoods. They also didn’t have the data to assess the quality of prenatal care or the type of preterm birth, but they are developing a qualitative study to determine the best ways of measuring exposure to police violence.
In addition, the researchers’ reliance only on formal police complaints could have underestimated prevalence of excessive force, and the study did not take into account people’s direct experience with police violence; police violence that occurs within a person’s social network; or police violence widely covered in the news.
It wasn’t possible for the researchers to verify whether excessive force actually occurred or whether the force might have been justified, and instead relied on the fact that someone lodged a complaint because he or she perceived the action as excessive.
Allison Bryant, MD, MPH, vice chair for Quality, Equity, and Safety at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a board member of SMFM, said she was impressed with the adjustment of homicide exposure as a proxy for neighborhood crime.
“Many might assume that reports of police misconduct might be a marker for a ‘dangerous neighborhood,’ and it was thoughtful of the authors to adjust their analyses for exposure to crime to demonstrate that, even above and beyond crime, reports of police misconduct seem to be associated with adverse outcomes,” Bryant, who moderated the session, told Medscape Medical News.
Confronting this issue goes beyond what clinicians can do on their own, Bryant suggested.
“The greatest change will come with addressing the structural racism that underlies differential exposure to police misconduct in communities in the first place,” she said. “Concurrent with this, however, clinicians may consider adding in an assessment of neighborhood characteristics to include reports of police misconduct as they screen for other social determinants of health. While we do not have intervention studies to demonstrate efficacy, it is not a huge leap to imagine that recognition of this burden in individuals’ lives, plus offering ways to manage stress or seek redress, could be of benefit.”
The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the Northwestern Medicine Enterprise Data Warehouse Pilot Data Program. Freedman, Borders, and Bryant have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine 2021 Annual Pregnancy Meeting: Abstract 18. Presented January 28, 2021.