Birth Pangs

It seems to be my week for being in the firing line. Below the fold is an article from the Launceston Sunday Examiner by Fran Voss. Yet again, my coauthor (in this case, Joshua Gans) seemed to dodge the bullet.

Fran Voss, “Oh baby, you must be joking!”, Sunday Examiner, 30/03/08
Being past your due date to give birth is not be happiest time a woman s life.
You feel as heavy, as a Mack truck and about as attractive. Your legs ache, you have varicose veins where the sun don’t shine, your back aches, the baby practices daily punt kicks on bladder, you have to get up several times a night to go to the loo, you have indigestion and its been a year since you had any alcohol.
Damn right, you are in a bad mood!
Anyone who suggested you might want to hang on for a bit longer just to claim a paltry $813 extra bonus is likely to have serious injury inflicted on him by a breast pump.
I say ”him” because no woman would claim anything so ludicrous, not to mention anatomically impossible.
Obviously Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh is not easily terrified.
I would be if I was him.
This week he suggested that the mid-year increase in the baby bonus due in July will cause
women to delay their births so they’re eligible for the extra bonus.
The $4187 baby bonus introduced by the Howard Government in 2004 is due to rise to
$1000 on July 1.
Our learned friend reckons this is an unhealthy incentive for women to “over-cook” their babies.
Yeah?
You think we want to go on feeling like this for another week?
No offence, but if I want my car fixed l go to a mechanic, if I want my tax done I go to an accountant, if I want to know about giving birth I am not going to go to an economist.
Mr Leigh says an increase in the baby bonus last year resulted in 700 delayed births in Australia.
How does he know this?
Did he go in to visit the newly-delivered mum and ask her how she managed to perform this incredible feat?
Did she just sit there with her legs firmly crossed prolonging her labour for an extra couple of days?
Did she stand on her head against the wall?
Perhaps she wrapped Her tummy in red flannel and whistled Yankee Doodle?
What planet did this man come from? There are many things in life over which we have control: like eating (though perhaps not spaghetti), washing the kitchen floor, choosing the colour of our curtains.
Giving birth is certainly not one of them.
When a baby is ready to come into the world neither heaven nor hell nor the Prime Minister with a bigger baby bonus can change its mind.
The reverse is also true.
There more old wives methods of bringing labour than a Telstra on executive’s pay rises and none of them work. (Neither do the executives for that matter.)
l know because two of my three children were overdue by more than a week and I tried most of them.
The car ride over a bumpy road. The very hot bath. Green tea. Cod liver oil. Sex.
Even slipping on icy streets in a Canadian carpark refused to budge my first daughter, although that wasn’t intended.
I have to admit I did try to delay the birth of my third baby, if for only a few hours.
But that was because she was trying to make an entrance on Christmas Day and I thought of
the poor little thing always having only one set of presents.
It was a very hot Canberra Christmas Day and we were sharing lunch with my in-laws.
The contractions started with the entree course and the Christmas all went on through turkey, the plum pudding, the ice cream and the raspberries, although not in any major way, obviously.
I certainly did a lot of sitting down with my legs crossed saying: “Wait! Wait! Just a couple more hours till we’re past midnight.”
As it turned out, she did. She was born just before midday on Boxing Day but l don’t think it was anything l did.
She’s always wished l could have held on longer.
Having your birthday the day after Christmas is like trying to put the bubbles back into the champagne and the champagne back in the bottle.
A bit like Mr Leigh’s suggestion, really.
Our economist makes me regret that men can’t have babies.

Here’s the letter I wrote in response.

In the Sunday Examiner of 30 March, Fran Voss wrote a column critiquing my research on the Baby Bonus with Joshua Gans. Professor Gans and I found that the sudden Baby Bonus introduction on 1 July 2004 and increase on 1 July 2006 caused hundreds of births to be “moved” from June to July. Ms Voss’s response – “you must be joking” – made me wish two things.

First, it made me wish I could write with her deft flair. If only my dusty economics articles had the wit and humour of Ms Voss’s columns, perhaps they too would be read by thousands, rather than by tens (I may be being generous to myself on this point).

Second, it made me wish that Ms Voss was right. When the federal government implemented these sudden increases in the Baby Bonus, it created an incentive to move births for non-medical reasons. It would be nice to think this had no effect on births. But the facts speak otherwise. With nearly half of all babies now born by c-section or inducement, it turns out to be relatively easy for doctors and parents to move births. In late-June 2004 (and 2006), inducements and c-sections plummeted, before spiking upwards in early-July. Meanwhile, vaginal births were basically unaffected.

One piece of evidence tells the story. Professor Gans and I have daily birth data for the past thirty years (over ten thousand days in all). Across this period, the day with the largest number of births was 1 July 2004, the day on which the Baby Bonus was introduced. Just a coincidence, Ms Voss?

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6 Responses to Birth Pangs

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I think Ms Voss is very cross with you. Just a thought … :)

    I have been meaning to ask about your ‘over-cooked’ comment. As you point out many Australian babies are now born by c-section. There has been an allegation that this is due to women not wanting to go through labour (having observed it close up on four occasions I don’t blame them). Now a planned c-section is usually performed a few days earlier than full-term to avoid natural birth occuring. So those babies are ‘under-cooked’. I don’t think it is possible to delay natural child birth per se, so those births being moved are the planned c-sections. So to delay a planned birth is to reduce the amount of undercooking – or am I missing something?

  2. christine says:

    Hmm, ok, this time it can’t be that Joshua Gans escaped because he doesn’t have a weblog, esp given that he’s posted on this topic at least as much as you, Andrew. So it’s just you. Be terrified!

    Personally, I always thought I’d want to get the baby out earlier rather than later, until the very end when I got rather cold feet and would have been quite happy to wait a bit longer. Totally agree with Ms Voss that I wish men could have babies, though. That’ll teach them not to make comments about the relative size and painfulness of various contractions!

  3. lauredhel says:

    With nearly half of all babies now born by c-section or inducement, it turns out to be relatively easy for doctors and parents to move births.

    … and in the period just before the baby bonus cutoff date, they moved them a little LESS than usual. Yet, you’re continuing to insist that this must obviously have been medically a bad thing.

    Perhaps Gans escaped critique because has shown himself willing to consider alternate hypotheses, something you have not done to date.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Laurelhed, there was no mention of health risks in the Voss piece. It was entirely about whether the Baby Bonus caused births to be moved (by which I mean “born at a different time from when they would have been born if it were not for the introduction effect”).

    Frankly, I think it’s pretty unlikely that Voss’s newspaper article was influenced by the discussion in the comment threads of our blogs. I think that’s just a way of you bringing up the fact that you’re still cross at me. It’s good that Joshua was able to do a better job than me at addressing your concerns. I don’t see any value in reopening this particular debate now, but I do sincerely hope that the next topic we discuss together will lead to a more productive exchange.

  5. lauredhel says:

    . It’s good that Joshua was able to do a better job than me at addressing your concerns.

    Refusal to acknowledge or consider points raised in peer review – even when they are raised by multiple well-informed people from multiple sources – is not a very useful trait in a scientist. You published the paper, it’s being reviewed negatively for very good reasons; why do you continue to defend it wholesale?

    Good scientific process includes considering new data with an open mind, questioning faulty assumptions and pre-conceived ideas (like your notion that current obstetric practice is both normal and ideal), and modifying hypotheses accordingly. Once a paper is published and seeded to media, the peer review is public, and that response process needs to be public if you want other critical thinkers to take you seriously. This conversation would probably have ended long ago if you had taken this course in the first place. It’s not too late now.

    I have presented a large amount of relevant data and argument, as have others, and yet you continue to obstinately refuse to consider or even acknowledge any of it, instead just waving me away and putting it all down to me being “cross”. Attributing this entire disagreement to my feelings? Come on.

  6. Coreena says:

    I don’t care when women have their babies but believe there should not be a lump sum baby bonus. A debit card should be issued that can only be used for baby items like bottles, baby clothes, pram, capsule etc. Parents might also be able to set aside a percentage of the bonus in a fund that is untouchable until the child is 18 and the money can be used to cover uni fees or whatever. I live in Tasmania which has the highest number of births per capita in the under 18 age group. There are also reports of young women being beaten up by partners to force them to hand over the baby bonus money. A debit card is my solution.

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