It helps to be born to the right parents, people tend to say about the fortunate few who are rich from birth and have a high social position. But even this may not be enough. An Israeli study maintains that the way to success begins even before birth and is influenced by environmental factors while the fetus is in the womb.
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The researchers studied the achievements of youngsters whose mothers came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 carrying them in their womb. They found that children born to women who came to Israel in the early pregnancy stages achieved better results in school as teenagers and a larger number of them passed their matriculation exams.
Past studies outline many ways in which the environment influences the fetus, infant, child and adult. The findings, which often put pressure on pregnant women, deal with the influence of diseases, allergies, attention disorders and intelligence level.
On May 24, 1991, Israel launched the covert military operation, dubbed Operation Solomon, to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In the 36-hour operation, non-stop flights, including 41 Israeli Boeing airplanes, transported more than 14,000 Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel. Among them were hundreds of pregnant women.
In less than two days the immigrants’ lives changed abruptly. The climate, nutrition, living conditions, emotional stress level and medical services were but a few of the changes that occurred in the fetuses’ womb environment.
These circumstances provided researchers with a rare opportunity to explore the changes sparked within a large group of people by one specific event, 25 years ago. The study was conducted by Professor Victor Lavi and Dr. Adi Shani of the Hebrew University’s economics department and Dr. Analia Schlosser, of Tel Aviv University’s economics department, at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private American research organization.
“Many books have been written about the importance of the environment a child grows in and how it affects his cognitive development and health,” says Schlosser. “In the ‘70s scientific literature started dealing with the womb in this context as well. The problem is that it’s very difficult to isolate the environmental effect. For example, how much weight should be given to factors like taking vitamins and folic acid during pregnancy, healthy nutrition and the woman’s education level? Or how does one compare all these to what is given to the child after birth?”
“Among the 14,000 immigrants from Ethiopia there were some 600 pregnant women. This is a homogenous group in which the mothers’ education, living conditions, housing area, way of life and age group were very similar. The difference was in each woman’s pregnancy stage at the time she came to Israel,” she says.
The differences between undergoing pregnancy and delivering a child in Ethiopia and in Israel were significant. The researchers deal mainly with the women’s taking vitamins and additives such as iodine, iron and folic acid, which were not given to pregnant women in Ethiopia at the time.
The earlier the fetus was exposed to better environmental conditions in the womb, the higher the child’s education achievements two decades later, the study finds. Among the teenagers whose mothers took the additives at an earlier pregnancy stage, fewer dropped out of school and a larger number passed matriculation exams.
Various epidemiological studies say the first trimester of pregnancy is critical to the fetus’ cognitive development. The scientists studied 594 youngsters of Ethiopian descent who were born in Israel from May 27, 1991 to February 15, 1992. They divided them into three groups, based on the pregnancy trimester in which the women came to Israel.
The scientists focused on factors seen as predicting success, examining indices such as the teenagers’ dropout rate and the number of units in their matriculation exams, with an emphasis on English and mathematics, which correspond to intelligence level and are known to pay off in the labor market, the study says.
The findings show considerable gaps between the first and third trimester groups. For example, 87.3 percent of the first trimester group (most of whose fetal development took place in Israel) completed 12 years of school, compared to 81.9 percent in the third trimester group (most of whose fetal development took place in Ethiopia).
The gaps were more dramatic regarding the rate of teenagers who passed their matriculation exams – 37 percent of the first trimester group passed, compared to only 23.6 percent of the third trimester group. The in-between group, of teenagers whose mothers immigrated in the second pregnancy trimester, achieved results accordingly – 85.4 percent completed school and 31 percent passed their matriculation exams.
“As economists we ask why people’s earnings are so different,” says Shani. “The wage differences stem from various reasons and are related among other things to various inputs and resources that were invested in them... The gaps are created already in the womb. At the moment we’re not following these children in the job market. But we believe the gaps we found in their matriculation achievements are reflected in the job market,” she says.
The Ethiopian youngsters’ achievement was also compared to a control group born in the same months, to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the ‘80s and whose entire fetal development took place in Israel. “In the second generation we didn’t see differences,” says Schlosser.
The researchers also compared their findings to the achievements of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But this comparison was problematic to begin with as the immigrants from the FSU did not all arrive in two days. They had the ability to choose whether to have a family and to plan one. Also, the medical conditions of the ‘90s in the FSU were closer to those in Israel, Schlosser says.
“The study shows why investing in children at a young age, from before birth, is important,” says Shani. “Granted, the differences could be attributed to many causes but ultimately gaps between developing and developed countries are created already in the womb. This is especially relevant when it comes to migration policy. Europe is currently undergoing migration waves, so following the pregnancy of migrant women could turn out to be very significant in the future,” Shani says.