Conflict violence reduction and pregnancy outcomes: A regression discontinuity design in Colombia

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by Giancarlo Buitrago, Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Background

The relationship between exposure to conflict violence during pregnancy and the risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal mortality has not been studied empirically using rigorous methods and appropriate data. We investigated the association between reduced exposure to conflict violence during pregnancy and the risks of adverse pregnancy outcomes in Colombia.

Methods and findings

We adopted a regression discontinuity (RD) design using the July 20, 2015 cease-fire declared during the Colombian peace process as an exogenous discontinuous change in exposure to conflict events during pregnancy, comparing women with conception dates before and after the cease-fire date. We constructed the cohorts of all pregnant women in Colombia for each day between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2017 using birth and death certificates. A total of 3,254,696 women were followed until the end of pregnancy. We measured conflict exposure as the total number of conflict events that occurred in the municipality where a pregnant woman lived during her pregnancy. We first assessed whether the cease-fire did induce a discontinuous fall in conflict exposure for women with conception dates after the cease-fire to then estimate the association of this reduced exposure with the risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal mortality. We found that the July 20, 2015 cease-fire was associated with a reduction of the average number of conflict events (from 2.64 to 2.40) to which women were exposed during pregnancy in their municipalities of residence (mean differences −0.24; 95% confidence interval [CI] −0.35 to −0.13; p < 0.001). This association was greater in municipalities where Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) had a greater presence historically. The reduction in average exposure to conflict violence was, in turn, associated with a decrease of 9.53 stillbirths per 1,000 pregnancies (95% CI −16.13 to −2.93; p = 0.005) for municipalities with total number of FARC-related violent events above the 90th percentile of the distribution of FARC-related conflict events and a decrease of 7.57 stillbirths per 1,000 pregnancies (95% CI −13.14 to −2.00; p = 0.01) for municipalities with total number of FARC-related violent events above the 75th percentile of FARC-related events. For perinatal mortality, we found associated reductions of 10.69 (95% CI −18.32 to −3.05; p = 0.01) and 6.86 (95% CI −13.24 to −0.48; p = 0.04) deaths per 1,000 pregnancies for the 2 types of municipalities, respectively. We found no association with miscarriages. Formal tests support the validity of the key RD assumptions in our data, while a battery of sensitivity analyses and falsification tests confirm the robustness of our empirical results. The main limitations of the study are the retrospective nature of the information sources and the potential for conflict exposure misclassification.

Conclusions

Our study offers evidence that reduced exposure to conflict violence during pregnancy is associated with important (previously unmeasured) benefits in terms of reducing the risk of stillbirth and perinatal deaths. The findings are consistent with such beneficial associations manifesting themselves mainly through reduced violence exposure during the early stages of pregnancy. Beyond the relevance of this evidence for other countries beset by chronic armed conflicts, our results suggest that the fledgling Colombian peace process may be already contributing to better population health.