Selection against small males in utero: a test of the Wells hypothesis

Hum Reprod. 2012 Apr;27(4):1202-8. doi: 10.1093/humrep/der480. Epub 2012 Feb 1.


Background: The argument that women in stressful environments spontaneously abort their least fit fetuses enjoys wide dissemination despite the fact that several of its most intuitive predictions remain untested. The literature includes no tests, for example, of the hypothesis that these mechanisms select against small for gestational age (SGA) males.

Methods: We apply time-series modeling to 4.9 million California male term births to test the hypothesis that the rate of SGA infants in 1096 weekly birth cohorts varies inversely with labor market contraction, a known stressor of contemporary populations.

Results: We find support for the hypothesis that small size becomes less frequent among term male infants when the labor market contracts.

Conclusions: Our findings contribute to the evidence supporting selection in utero. They also suggest that research into the association between maternal stress and adverse birth outcomes should acknowledge the possibility that fetal loss may affect findings and their interpretation. Strengths of our analyses include the large number and size of our birth cohorts and our control for autocorrelation. Weaknesses include that we, like nearly all researchers in the field, have no direct measure of fetal loss.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Spontaneous / epidemiology*
  • Birth Weight
  • California / epidemiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Economics*
  • Employment / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Small for Gestational Age*
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological*