Is becoming a mother a risk factor for murder?

Why homicide is a more common killer of pregnant women than practically anything else.

Katharine Mieszkowski
November 30, 2006 1:42AM (UTC)

Usually the coverage of the murder of a pregnant woman is so sensationalistic - remember Scott and Laci Peterson? -- that I just turn away in disgust. But North Carolina's News & Observer has a substantive story today that attempts to parse the numbers behind the tabloid headlines. It's inspired by the death of Michelle Fisher Young, a mother of a 2-year-old who was expecting another child when she was beaten to death in her home in a subdivision of Raleigh earlier this month, while her husband was out of town. No suspects have been arrested.

The Observer reports that homicide is a leading cause of death among pregnant women. While there are no definitive national stats, and researchers fear the murders of pregnant women are actually undercounted, various studies have found homicide to be the No. 1 or No. 2 killer of expectant mothers. (Other close contenders are car accidents and cardiovascular disease.) "According to the National Center for Health Statistics, which tracks the manner of death in women by age group, homicide does not rank as high as a cause of death among American women in general," the paper reports. One recent Washington Post analysis of data of deaths of pregnant women found that in two-thirds of cases the pregnancy was a motive in the slaying.


Some researchers say the slaying of pregnant women is symptomatic of how widespread domestic violence is; a 2004 study of 1,500 pregnant women in North Carolina found that 6 percent of them endured slaps, kicks or shoves while expecting. Some habitual batterers may actually be set off by the extra care many women give themselves when expecting: "During a pregnancy, the woman tends to take care of herself and starts doing her own thinking," Jill Duszyski, a counselor who treats admitted batterers for the state Department of Corrections, told the paper. "For a batterer, he's bound to feel less powerful. He'll strike."

While debate rages about whether expectant mothers can drink any alcohol while pregnant and when moms-to-be really should start taking those prenatal vitamins, let's not forget about those pregnant women who have so much else to fear. This is one realm where it's crystal clear what's best for the expectant mother, not to mention the developing fetus: freedom from violence. What needs more research is how to get her there.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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