"Pregnant women murdered at an alarming rate." "Killings of new, expectant mothers mount." "Many new or expectant mothers die violent deaths." "Violence trails expectant mothers." "Pregnant mothers often die of murder."
These headlines top a highly-publicized new series of articles by Donna St. George of the Washington Post. The series, which appeared in many major newspapers and media outlets this week, details an alleged epidemic of maternal homicide by male intimates.
The series powerfully depicts the tragedies of murdered expectant or new mothers. The mother-to-be killed the day her mother ordered the cake for her baby shower. The pregnant 14 year-old murdered by her 14 year-old ex-boyfriend. The bank manager killed because she wouldn’t convert to her husband’s religion before their twins were born. However, despite the emotion, alarm bells and blaring headlines, the series fails to build the case that maternal homicide is an epidemic, is on the rise, or is even a significant social problem.
According to the Post’s numbers, there are about 100 documented murders of pregnant women in the United States each year. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly four million women give birth each year. One out of 40,000 is not an epidemic. The Post speculates that the true number could be significantly higher but also notes that 30% of these killings are not related to childbearing, but instead involve drug dealing, robberies, errant gunfire, or other causes. And some pregnant women are killed by other women, as in the recent Missouri murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett by a woman who cut her live baby from her womb.
St. George and others point to a Journal of the American Medical Association article which states that in Maryland a "pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be a victim of homicide than to die of any other cause." This sounds alarming until one considers that there are an average of eight murders of pregnant women each year in Maryland–alongside 75,000 live births.
St. George also cites a study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health which allegedly showed murder to be the biggest cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers. When this study was released the Boston Globe summarized its findings as follows:
"Murder is the leading cause of death for Massachusetts mothers in the 21-month period from when they become pregnant until their babies reach their first birthday, according to a state review that shows domestic violence today is more dangerous than medical complications from childbirth."
However, when public health specialist Ned Holstein of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine examined the report, he found that murder was well down the list of alleged causes of maternal death. According to the study’s own data, the leading causes of death of pregnant or recently-pregnant women over a 10-year period were Medical conditions (152), Motor vehicle accidents (21), Domestic violence homicides (20), other homicides (10), and Miscellaneous (29). The epidemic of domestic violence-related homicides sweeping Massachusetts consists of an average of two deaths per year.
"The risk of murder by an intimate is extremely small, not an epidemic," says Holstein, a physician who also heads Fathers and Families of Massachusetts. "Although every death is tragic, murder of pregnant women simply does not rank as a significant public health problem."
St. George’s article series expresses commendable concern about battery of pregnant women but errs in claiming a link between domestic violence and pregnancy. According to longtime domestic violence researcher Richard J. Gelles, co-author of Behind Closed Doors, "to be pregnant alone doesn’t put a woman at risk."
"Women between the ages of 20 and 34 suffer the highest rate of domestic violence, and that is also the most likely age to be pregnant," he says. "Age is driving the risk, not pregnancy."
Unfortunately, alarmist claims of pregnant women being victimized by male partners are not new. For example, in 1993 Time magazine and many major newspapers reported that, according to the March of Dimes, domestic violence was the leading cause of birth defects. This claim was later found to be completely fictional, and was retracted by Time and others.
Similarly, the claim that "22 to 35 percent of women who visit medical emergency rooms are there for injuries related to domestic violence" has been echoed countless times by major media outlets and in politicians’ sound bytes. However, according to Emergency Room data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and the Justice Department, only about 1% of women’s injuries are inflicted by male intimates.
St. George uses anecdote and emotion in place of facts and research in order to find a mythical crisis of maternal homicide. It is another example of how legitimate concern for battered women often devolves into an alarmist and anti-male view of domestic violence and gender relations.
- Lexington Herald-Leader1/3/05
- Cybercast News Service1/10/05