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Why Do We Mock—And Murder—Pregnant Women?

Our marginalization of pregnant women is overshadowing something far more dangerous than weight gain.

Why Do We Mock—And Murder—Pregnant Women?

Our marginalization of pregnant women is overshadowing something far more dangerous than weight gain.


Last week, OK! Magazine’s front page feature on “Kate’s Post-Baby Weight Loss Regime” — one day after her delivery — epitomized the insane and unhealthy expectations put upon pregnant women before and after baby. British women went understandably ballistic in response. TV presenter Katy Hill put her foot down and her shirt up to show off her post-baby bump, urging everyone to boycott the magazine using the hashtags #DontBuyOK, #bumps, #bodylove and #babyweight-gate.

Kim Kardashian and Jessica Simpson before her also got skewered in the press for—what nerve—gaining weight while pregnant! Media “experts” expressed “sincere” concern over how unhealthy this was for their babies. What? The media’s ire has nothing to do with health. And although weight gain does increase our risk for gestational diabetes and cesarean sections, being underweight is far more harmful to a baby.

Ironically, there is something even more dangerous and common during pregnancy that the media should focus on: murder.

Homicide during pregnancy is more common than some conditions pregnant women are routinely screened for, such as diabetes and pre-eclampsia, according to a recent study. Especially among African Americans and women under 20, who are at higher risk.

Murder is a leading cause of traumatic deaths for pregnant women in the US, second only to those caused by motor vehicles, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control. However, if you combine suicides (10%) with homicides (31%) into a broader category of “violent deaths,” this is tied with car accidents (44.1%) as a cause of maternal deaths.

Domestic abuse, or “intimate partner violence,” (“IPV”) is usually at cause in over half of these cases.

“Maternicide”: An Under-reported Problem

As shocking as these stats are, violence against pregnant women is actually under-counted and under-reported. Those absolute numbers are in reality higher because the US has no official or consistent methodology for documenting and counting maternal mortality.

The “findings substantially underestimate the magnitude of the problem, because the data … are incomplete,” the CDC researchers stated .

Most US death certificates don’t state if a woman is pregnant at time of death.

It can only be determined by the person certifying the death if he/she analyzes the cause(s) of death given, or via autopsy. Or by linking the certificate to the delivery of a child or stillborn baby.

One study found 38% of positive pregnancy status on death certificates was not reported.

Defining the “maternal” period

In addition, researchers use different definitions of “pregnant woman.” Some studies include the postpartum period for 42 days, others a year after birth. Critics say this lengthy period of maternal-ness is overarching but a recently-pregnant status is a need-to-know part of the picture.

In the British study, “Why Mothers Die,” researchers found that when they looked one year out postpartum, suicide was the leading cause of death.

It’s not “just” homicide that we need to track

What are we measuring (besides Kate’s belly bump & Kim K’s butt)?

The third loophole in getting clear data on this murky issue is what we are tracking. We do not factor in all types of maternal violent deaths where domestic abuse has been reported, and may have been a factor during pregnancy, such as suicide.

Over 54% of pregnancy-associated suicides involved domestic abuse that appeared to contribute to the suicide, researchers found.

Intimate partner violence is at cause in over 50% of the cases of homicide, suicide, accidents, and some miscarriages as well, according to the same study. Abuse can even aggravate potentially fatal health issues. (A British study includes an epileptic who died where domestic abuse had been reported several times.)

It is therefore critical to include suicide numbers in the conversation about maternal deaths as a result of violence and domestic abuse (suggested term: “maternicide”).

The scope of the problem far outweighs our focus on it.

IMHO, if we found dogs doing this, it would make front page news. (“Dogs Killing Pregnant Bitches!”). Yet when Donna St. George published a series in the Washington Post in 2004 and 2005, she got skewered for “sensationalizing” a “trivial issue”!!!!

Commenting on the problem in the Post article, one researcher, Cara Krulewitch,at the University of Maryland-Baltimore School of Nursing, said the findings are “significant.” She added that “Although most pregnant women are not in danger, “

“There is a phenomenon going on out there
and we don’t understand it yet.”

We as readers, the media, and the agencies responsible, need to focus on violence and domestic abuse during pregnancy, not the size of of Kim Kardashian’s butt. We are all, in essence, “the media.” When we click on those stories, buy those magazines, and do or say nothing, we are enabling the marginalization of pregnant women and the unreal standards being purported on all pregnant women during and after birth.

As many researchers point out, we desperately need to get an accurate grasp of the problem by standardizing the way we collect and report the data. We should be tracking any and all violent deaths of pregnant women where domestic violence was involved, not “just” murders. We must find better ways to protect the lives of pregnant women. They are, after all, living for two.


Facts & Figures:

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) numbers for maternal mortality in the US keep rising. In the last 20 years, they have nearly doubled, up by 75%. Meanwhile, Uganda has seen their ratio drop by half during the same period. Yes, Uganda. Europe overall has trended downward by half — while we have nearly doubled. In absolute numbers, the UK is one-half of our rate and Western Europe one-quarter.

The British are doing it best.

In “Why Mothers Die” and “Saving Mother’s Lives” the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths (CEMD), researchers define one category for maternal deaths as those “who died of any cause who had features of domestic abuse.” [italics mine]

The Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths (CEMD) have been studying all categories of maternal deaths for 50 years in England and Wales. Since 1985, the Enquiry has covered the whole population of the UK, producing eight reports, each covering a three-year period. By contrast, the most recent US study only included 15 states. CEMD is the only study I could find in the 25+ research reports read for this story that perform a large scale, in-depth study, consistently with up-to-date, consistent definitions that actually can be applied to the real world.

The CEMD tracks deaths of pregnant women who before or during pregnancy had reported domestic abuse. For example, three deaths counted in this category were newly arrived brides from other countries (mail order brides?), one of whom died in a highly suspicious fire believed to be a suicide. So this would not show up on the US radar, which is only tracking homicides. But the UK study includes it in their domestic violence category. We need to do the same.