Abortion opponents don't care if pregnant women get murdered

The top cause of maternal mortality is violence. Forcing women to carry to term will make it so much worse

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 30, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Ultrasound of a pregnant woman and test (Getty Images/SabdiZ)
Ultrasound of a pregnant woman and test (Getty Images/SabdiZ)

This all happened in the past two weeks alone: Nekea Brooks was 27 years old, and two months pregnant, when she was shot and killed in Fayetteville, NC on May 16. She leaves behind a five year-old daughter. Mijor Kay Anderson was a pregnant 30 year-old mother of eight when she went missing from Vicksburg, MS last October. Her body was found, "rolled up and tossed away like trash," in the words of her sister Amy Anderson-Williams, on May 17. Tamarra Deloache of York, PA was 32 and six months pregnant when was found dead from "sharp force trauma" in her apartment on May 18. She leaves behind a 12 year-old son.

The leading cause of death in pregnant and postpartum women in the US is not heart disease, diabetes, or infection. It's murder. Gutting abortion rights will make it so, so much worse.

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America's harrowing gallop away from reproductive rights — led by a gung-ho Supreme Court and a far-right Catholic fringe — was never about saving human life. It was never about children sleeping peacefully in the loving arms of their mothers. The flippant rhetoric of "safe haven" laws and grossly out-of-touch commentary like Rep. Dan Crenshaw's "Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?" make it clear that the foes of safe, legal abortion don't have a plan for pregnant women and they don't give a crap either.

"If we look around the world, women who are pregnant either by choice or because of assault or rape are often targets of men," explains Brigittine French, assistant vice president of global education and professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, and a specialist in gendered violence. She cites social stigma, financial insecurity, and chronic abuse among the exacerbating factors. "Any conditions where a woman's sexuality is subject to scrutiny," she says, "they can become victims of violence." 

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The most recent supporting evidence comes via a 2021 report in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. Using National Center for Health Statistics, researchers found the homicide rate was 16% higher for pregnant women than their peers of reproductive age and noted that "Homicide during pregnancy or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy exceeded all the leading causes of maternal mortality by more than twofold."

And the risks are a lot worse in the most vulnerable groups. "Pregnancy was associated with a significantly elevated homicide risk in the Black population and among girls and younger women (age 10–24 years) across racial and ethnic subgroups," the report continues. Speaking to Nature last year, study co-author and reproductive epidemiologist Maeve Wallace said simply: "It's an age and race story." 

Prior to her death, she had done an internet search for "what to do if your husband is upset you are pregnant."

There are a thousand things wrong with the oft-repeated lie that girls and women can and should just carry every pregnancy to term — a thousand problems that the cavalier "more adoption" response doesn't address. But chief among them is the very real risk of violence to a pregnant female body. There are honor killings and attempted killings. Last year in Peoria, Arizona, six members of the same family were arrested after allegedly attempting to kidnap a 20-year-old pregnant relative. The woman told police she "was afraid her relatives will kill her because they believe she has brought dishonor to the family."

There are spousal killings. We know about the infamous ones — it's been twenty years since Scott Peterson killed his wife Laci and their unborn son Conner, and four since family annihilator Chris Watts murdered his wife Shannan, their unborn son Nico, and their two young daughters Bella and Celeste. But just this past April, Beau Rothwell of Creve Coeur, Missouri was found guilty of bludgeoning his pregnant wife Jennifer to death with a mallet. Prior to her death, she had done an internet search for "what to do if your husband is upset you are pregnant."

As a paper published in 2021 in the Journal of Women's Health — one that also explored the distressingly high number of maternal deaths due to suicide and overdose — notes, "When the perpetrator is known, the largest proportion of homicide cases during or around pregnancy occurs at the hands of an intimate partner." Now picture how exponentially more dangerous everything becomes when more women who are already in fear for their lives can't safely end a pregnancy. 

It's striking how little political concern there is for the unborn when they're the casualties of their murdered mothers. It's also profoundly telling how little medical concern there is either -- the current CDC calculates maternal deaths as a "result of pregnancy or delivery complications" but does not include violence or accidents in their statistics. It doesn't recognize the violence against women as the serious health risk it truly is.

"A lot of times the reason a younger person, a minor, might want to terminate a pregnancy is because of family violence."

Conservatives like to repeat the fiction that unwanted pregnancy is caused by female sluttiness, overlooking the dangerous dynamics of familial and intimate partner abuse. Gretchen Ely, a social work professor at the University of Tennessee, is currently doing research on reproductive coercion. "Intentionally impregnating someone or forced impregnation is a pregnancy tactic that is a partner abuse tactic," she says. "I think that people don't realize the extent of tampering with pregnancy autonomy that can possibly go on in a domestic abuse situation." But abortion, she says, "can be a way of getting away from an abusive partner. Taking that away can force a family formation in the context of violence." She adds, "It's really none of our business why people get abortions. But there is a lot of potential around an unintended pregnancy for there to be trauma or violence that occurs prior to that unintended pregnancy."

And the potential for violence — along with the total disregard for bodily autonomy — is all the crueler for the underage. Parental consent laws — and 21 states have them — already put girls at risk. "A lot of times the reason a younger person, a minor, might want to terminate a pregnancy is because of family violence and the fear of what will happen to them if their parents or guardians find out that they have a pregnancy," says Ely. "Research has shown for a long time that most teens would involve a trusted adult in their abortion decision anyway. The ones who don't are the ones that are fearful of something like family violence. Family violence against teenage girls is very common."

Conservatives brag that they believe in prioritizing the unborn — but they don't seem to mind it so much when the mother dies along the way. They believe in the sanctity of the family — except for the children left behind in the aftermath of violence. They willfully ignore the real, life-threatening danger that walking around in the world in a pregnant body can pose, because when they preach about protecting life, they are imagining a very specific and exclusive type of life. As Brigittine French notes, "Pregnancy always renders women more vulnerable to lethal judgments by the people most close to her." And it's a death sentence the so-called "pro-life" movement sees no hypocrisy in.

More Salon coverage of reproductive rights: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Abortion Commentary Health Care Roe V. Wade Violence Against Women