Pregnancy Murder Needs Study, Not Sensationalism

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Last month,
the Washington Post ran a series on its front page for three
days in a row. The report by journalist Donna St. George was entitled
and Homicide: The Known Toll”
and featured color photographs
of multiple victims.

St. George
wrote, “Many women were slain at home – in bedrooms, living rooms,
kitchens – usually by men they knew. Husbands. Boyfriends. Lovers.”
The series clearly implies that there is an unacknowledged epidemic
of “maternal murder” being committed by intimates.

Maternal murder
is a heart-wrenching issue that demands attention, but the Post’s
report smacks of tabloid sensationalism. With supermarket headlines
like “Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths,” the Post
may be needlessly scaring women away from pregnancy itself while
failing to inform them of the real risk factors for becoming a maternal
murder victim. (The definition of “maternal homicide” includes murders
occurring 12 months after delivery and random violence.)

On forums
across the Internet, women are discussing the series.

One wrote,
“I’d like to marry and have children in the near future. Is there
any way to protect myself when I’m expecting so I don’t end up a
statistic like these unfortunates? Should I carry a weapon with
me, should I take self-defense courses, or what? I’m scared.”

The Post series
opens reasonably enough. St. George admits that there is no real
data and “no reliable system…to track such cases.” She appears
to be interested in exploring “pregnancy and homicide: how often
it happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome.”

Answering such
questions is difficult because the FBI, most state agencies and
police departments do not collect data on maternal homicides.

St. George consulted state records, such as death certificates,
and found 1,367 cases over 14 years, or 98 per year.

From this point
onward, the report begins to go wrong. St. George extrapolates
from one study conducted in Maryland to conclude that “it [the study]
would suggest about 295 maternal homicides nationwide a year.”

Accepting that
figure at face value, Jack Shafer, editor-at-large at Slate –
ran the math and
found that “if you were to murder women in this age bracket at random,
10 percent of your victims would be pregnant.” In short, pregnant
women would be no more or less likely to be murdered.

But the figure
should be questioned.

A 2002 General
Accounting Office report, “Data
on Pregnant Victims and Effectiveness of Prevention Strategies Are
warns that figures on maternal homicide “lack comparability….
Estimates…cannot be generalized or projected to all pregnant women.”

Current studies
vary too widely in methodology, conclusions and far too often in
the agendas propelling research.

St. George’s
report 72 cases for in-depth research and found “that nearly two-thirds…had
a strong relation to pregnancy or involved a domestic-violence clash
in which pregnancy may have been a factor.”

How the cases
were selected or whether they are representative is not indicated.

The remainder
of the series
is mostly devoted to lurid accounts of maternal
homicides by male intimates or to heartbreaking
of children – mostly of one child – “rescued from
the wombs of their dying mothers.”

Amid the raw
emotionalism, unnamed experts are often referenced.

St. George
writes, “many experts have come to agree that …160,000 to 320,000
[pregnant women] a year – are physically hurt by husbands, boyfriends
or partners.”

Which experts?
And if their “agreement” is based on reliable data, why the huge
range in the numbers?

Quick references
to studies in several states are also interspersed.

The sloppy
research and reporting serves women badly. St. George creates alarm
and the appearance of an “epidemic” without providing the context
that is necessary to understand any statistic.

For example,
the reader is not told whether “maternal homicides” are more common
than the murder of comparable non-pregnant women. Assuming murder
is the highest non-natural cause of death in pregnant women, is
this due the relatively young age of the mothers and medical advances?

Moreover, the
Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the total number of women
murdered has been declining
since 1993.

The DOJ also
finds that the number of women murdered by “intimates” (a spouse,
ex-spouse, or boyfriend) has also
since 1993.

Are maternal
homicides somehow rising as the other categories fall?

These are the
type of hard facts and answers that women need to know.

St. George
does women an additional disservice by calling pregnancy in and
of itself a risk factor for homicide. Richard L. Davis of Family
Nonviolence Inc.
takes St. George to task for her misuse of
and for ignoring the “real relevant risk factors” relating
to maternal murder.

Davis first
solid numbers. He writes, “The Massachusetts study
documents that for every 100,000 births, 9 women died from injury
related causes” and notes that about 1/3 of those deaths were “intimate
partner homicides.”

Thus, the risk
of becoming a maternal homicide victim is about 3 in 100,000.

Next, he indicates
risk factors: “black non-Hispanic women during this time span were
10 times more likely to be murdered than white non-Hispanic women…For
white non-Hispanic women it was not homicides, but motor vehicle
collision that was the leading cause of injury related death.”

Poverty seemed
be a strong factor, with a National
Institute of Justice study
agreeing that “couples living in
disadvantaged neighborhoods, facing job instability and economic
distress are at higher levels of probabilities of violence.”

Women need
facts on the risks and their risk factors. For example, police departments
should be pushed to maintain detailed records of maternal homicides.
Instead, the Post’s report offers deeply flawed research and scare

8, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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