Did federal shutdown really cause July baby boom in D.C.?

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 17, 2014 

— For years, the weather has been a scapegoat for allegedly causing cabin-fever induced spikes in births, and now some in the Washington area are pointing to Congress to explain packed maternity wards at several local hospitals.

This July, nine months after Congress failed to pass appropriations legislation _ shutting down much of the government and sending hundreds of thousands of federal workers home for more than two weeks _ some hospitals are reporting higher-than-average numbers of births. Skeptics say the coincidence is probably just another false “baby boom” claim, which have been made after hurricanes, snowstorms and even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Usually these stories are just romantic hypotheses with nothing to support them,” said Philip Morgan, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’s the director of the Carolina Population Center. “A few hospitals will have extra babies, so if you go looking for evidence you can find it.”

In 1970, statistician Richard Udry published an analysis of a supposed baby boom reported by The New York Times nine months after a blackout had hit the city in the fall of 1965. Examining the combined hospital statistics throughout the city compared with averages from several years prior, Udry found no evidence of a real rise in births.

Still, even Udry knew that his evidence would hardly quell the excitement related to reports of such baby booms.

“It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobile event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation,” Udry wrote.

UNC’s Morgan said such events were unlikely to affect the birthrate because they rarely had an effect on other factors, such as couples using contraception. However, he said some cases had been scientifically corroborated, including a rise in births in metropolitan Oklahoma City after the bombings in 1995 and a decrease following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in Southern states.

“It’s possible, but I doubt it,” Morgan said. “If anything, the government shutdown would irritate people and make them rethink having a child.”

While it would take years to compare this year’s births with the long-term trend to prove such a boom, the spike in births at at least one hospital has people excited.

“It’s not actually a rumor, it’s real,” said Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, who said the hospital had averaged three more births per day so far in July compared with the same period last year. In addition, the hospital had eight more babies this June than it did in June 2013.

While Stephenson acknowledged that the increased rate wasn’t beyond the norm, he said similar past events, such as the debunked post-blackout boom in New York, seemed to give such anomalies credit.

“When you see constituent bumps (in births) over time . . . I think it does cause one to think,” Stephenson said, adding that a nurse at Sibley had predicted the recent uptick.

Not all hospitals said they had evidence of a baby boom, however. A spokeswoman for MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the district’s largest, said the maternity ward there hadn’t seen any recent anomalies in the number of births, which was actually down in recent weeks.

Brian Williams, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” took the opportunity of the reported boom to offer some on-air humor.

“How long until someone on television points out that during the shutdown the folks in Washington are apparently doing at home what Washington has been accused of doing to the American people?” Williams said last week.

A similar case of an alleged baby boom made news last year, when some hospitals in New Jersey reported a surge in births nine months after Hurricane Sandy hit the region in October 2012.

The phenomenon was also recently referenced in a Hyundai commercial that aired during the FIFA World Cup competition. The ad showed a packed maternity ward before flashing back nine months to victory celebrations in which a young couple lock eyes and begin kissing.

The federal government shutdown, which occurred last Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, sent roughly 800,000 federal workers home during that period. In addition, more than 1 million employees were required to work without pay. Congress later restored pay for all the federal workers.

Email: jmoritz@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @JCMoritzTU.

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