Violent Deaths of New or Expectant Mothers

The Washington Post is publishing a three-part series on what they claim is a growing trend: the violent deaths of new or expectant mothers.

Their killings produced only a few headlines, but across the country in the last decade, hundreds of pregnant women and new mothers have been slain. Even as Scott Peterson’s trial became a public fascination, little was said about how often is happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome.

Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths (WaPo, A01)

Their deaths passed quietly. Tara Chambers, 29, was gunned down on a June morning inside her North Carolina home. Rebecca Johnson, 16, was shot in the chest as she sat in a pickup truck in Oklahoma. Ana Diaz, 28, was killed in a parking lot in Reston as she stopped to get a friend on their way to work. They all were pregnant, with futures that seemed sure to unfold over many years. One was a nurse’s assistant who planned to name her daughter T’Kaiya. Another had just bought a house. The youngest was a high school cheerleader. Their killings produced a few local headlines, then faded, each a seeming aberration in the community where it happened. But pregnant women like them have been slain in Maryland and Mississippi, in California and Kansas, in Ohio and Illinois. Jenny McMechen, 24, was shot in a friend’s home in Plainfield, Conn., and Kerry Repp, 29, was shot in her Oregon bedroom, and Tasha Winters, 16, was shot in Indiana the day she told her boyfriend about the baby. Ardena Carter, 24, was found dead in the Georgia woods, and Kathleen Terry, 22, was run over in Idaho, and Melesha Francis, 26, was strangled in New York, and Thelma Jones, 21, was shot sitting on her back steps in Louisiana — the day her mother ordered a cake for her baby shower.

A year-long examination by The Washington Post of death-record data in states across the country documents the killings of 1,367 pregnant women and new mothers since 1990. This is only part of the national toll, because no reliable system is in place to track such cases. Largely invisible, it is a phenomenon that is as consequential as it is poorly understood. Even in the past two years — as the Laci Peterson homicide case has become a public fascination, with a jury last week recommending that her husband, Scott, be sentenced to death in her killing — little has been said about the larger convergence of pregnancy and homicide: how often it happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome.

Obviously, these cases are especially tragic. It would be interesting to have the cross-tabs. What percentage of all murders since 1990 is 1,367? What is the comparable percentage of pregnant women over that period? How do these numbers compare with the murder rate among non-pregnant women of the same demographic background?

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know:

The FBI collects comprehensive homicide statistics but does not look at pregnancy. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks maternal health but has no uniform way of monitoring maternal killings.

A companion piece, “Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings,” points out that the academic research on the issue is inconclusive.

Krulewitch dug into medical archives and came across a 1992 journal article from Chicago and a 1995 study from New York City. In both, homicide had emerged as a significant cause of maternal death. It was difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend: Were pregnant women being killed in notable numbers?

***

Even now, studies that analyze maternal homicide are relatively rare. One of the most comprehensive studies came from Maryland, where researchers used an array of case-spotting methods, expecting to find more medical deaths than the state knew about. Instead they discovered that homicide was the leading cause of death, a finding published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 2002, Massachusetts weighed in with a study that also showed homicide as the top cause of maternal death, followed by cancer. Two of three homicides involved domestic violence. “This is clearly a major health problem for women,” said Angela Nannini, who led the study.

As with many of these issues, coding and other methodological issues are important:

The CDC has started a program to compile and analyze detailed characteristics about violent deaths across the country — the National Violent Death Reporting System — but it does not uniformly note maternal status in homicides. In the latest wave of research, experts have used an expanded definition of what qualifies as deaths associated with pregnancy — up to 12 months postpartum — with the idea that some troubles surface after pregnancy ends. Postpartum depression, for example, may play a role in suicide cases. Likewise, homicides can be related to the “chain of events” started by a pregnancy. In a CDC study of postpartum mothers, those younger than 20 were almost three times as likely to be homicide victims as their counterparts who were not recently pregnant.

Lumping suicides in with homicides, though, clouds the issue, conflating two entirely unrelatated problems.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teri says:

    “Lumping suicides in with homicides, though, clouds the issue, conflating two entirely unrelatated problems.”

    I agree. If you are trying to find out or figure out why people kill pregnant women, there is no point adding in suicides, especially post-partum suicides. There is a stark difference between voluntarily ending your own life and having your life violently taken from you.

    Also, a noteworthy thing in the death of a pregnant woman is that usually two lives are ended; once the baby is born there is a completely different dynamic going on. (If the people conducting these studies don’t understand the difference between pre- and post-partum, send them over to my house; I’ll explain it in little teeny words that even childless academics will be able to grasp.)

    I would imagine that somewhere, someone has an agenda to once again prove that fathers/husbands are the evildoers, since they are throwing around the domestic violence words. If I had my druthers, I’d want to see the percentage of deaths caused by family members or boyfriends (for lack of a better word) and those that are not caused by domestic situations.

    It would also be interesting, in the domestic subset, to see if there is a significant percentage of these murders that are committed by non-baby-fathers, for instance by the pregnant woman’s parents (for reason of shame) or by non-father boyfriens (jealousy).

    This seems like the sort of study that is guaranteed to create lots and lots of sensationalism and very little actual information.

  2. bryan says:

    Having just read two books, “Lies, damned lies and statistics,” and “More lies damned lies and statistics” that deal with this very issue, I have to agree with you, Teri.

    The author of those two books dissects a similar statistic that caused a lot of stir about african american teens and suicide, how the rate had risen dramatically over the last 20 years. But when you factored in the changes in coding, population size, etc. the rate hadn’t really increased at all.

    I suspect much the same way with this. And let’s be honest, 1,367 in 14 years is less than 100 a year. How many women are pregnant during that time period? How many were murdered during that time period?

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Betcha Mark Geragos is trying to find out if Lisa Montgomery was anywhere near Modesto when the Laci murder occured.

  4. Attila Girl says:

    It really sounds like a made-up trend, especially since some of the cases cited sound like random murders of women who just happen to be pregnant.

    The only causality other than the obvious “domestic”/family situations I can think of would be that women who are under the influence of hormones might be less careful about their personal safety, and could be easier prey in terms of murder by strangers. And in that context, studying the rates of post-partum victimization/suicide would be interesting.

    But 100 cases a year in a country of 260 million or whatever doesn’t sound like a trend at all.