Pregnancy Murder Needs Study, Not Sensationalism

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 “Pregnancy 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.

Accordingly, 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 Limited,” 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 stories 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 fallen 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 one study and for ignoring the “real relevant risk factors” relating to maternal murder.

Davis first establishes 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 tactics.

January 8, 2005