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Blowing the Statistics

Charles Blow in his New York Times column yesterday decried the fact that the United States ranks last among 33 developed countries in infant mortality. His solution — prepare to be shocked — is to reverse Republican proposed budget cuts for various government programs that deal with premature-birth and neonatal care. The column, which seems to be a reworked press release from the March of Dimes, contrasts Republican opposition to abortion with that party’s apparent indifference to newborn life, as evidenced by the budget cuts.

But how bad are the statistics really? That’s a good question that would take a lot of statistical horsepower to answer, if it’s even possible to do in a world where many countries quietly cook the books to make themselves look better. But had Mr. Blow dug deep in his research for the column — by, say, clicking on Infant Mortality in Wikipedia — he would have found that, while there is a standard definition of infant mortality from the World Health Organization (voluntary muscle contraction, a heart beat, or attempts to breathe spontaneously), many countries play fast and loose with it. The old Soviet Union, for instance, did not count as live births very premature babies who failed to survive for seven full days. France, the Netherlands, and other European countries don’t count as live births babies who weigh less than 500 grams or had less than 22 weeks of gestation. They are, instead, counted as stillbirths. Japan and Hong Kong, it seems, count babies that are almost a year old when they die as having lived a year and, thus, not an infant mortality.

So perhaps at least part of the reason for the low ranking of the United States with regard to infant mortality is that, in this country, we actually try to save premature and low-birth-weight babies rather than just chalk them up to stillbirths to make our numbers look good.


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