Amanda Ripley

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The Surprising Impact of Disasters on Fertility Rates

2nd Jun 2010 posted in General

Did the stress of 9/11 lead to a spike in miscarriages? In the months after the terrorist attacks, the death rate for male fetuses in the U.S. went up 12%, as detailed in a new study in the BMC Public Health Journal. The study (PDF is here) hypothesizes that the rise in miscarriages may have been caused by “communal bereavement”—which may have in turn disproportionately impacted males, who seem to be more sensitive to stress hormones in the womb.

People have speculated for decades about how major disasters impact fertility rates. The research is sparse but intriguing. A fascinating 2005 study, “Did Fertility Go up after the Oklahoma City Bombing? An Analysis of Births in Metropolitan Counties in Oklahoma,” determined that births did indeed rise after the Oklahoma City bombing. Why? Well, no one knows for sure, but the authors speculated that people’s priorities might have shifted after the trauma:

“[W]hen mortality becomes salient, people behave increasingly according to traditional values. Having children and raising families would be such a traditional response.”

Did a resurgence in family values happen after 9/11 as well? The BMC Public Health study does not analyze pregnancy rates. But it suggests that the attacks may have triggered a biological response not within women’s conscious control—a surge of stress hormones even in women not directly affected by the attacks.

In both cases, intense media coverage of the terrorist attacks magnified their emotional impact on the rest of the nation. It’s cosmic to think about what this means for the families and fetuses of the future. As media coverage of disasters becomes ever more immediate and vivid, can we expect even greater impact on fertility? Will we all be more affected, subliminally or not, by trauma we did not actually experience? Or will we develop a sort of numbness to the montage of oil spills, hurricane-force winds and devastation projected on our screens?