The Misinformation on Maternal Homicide – Part 1

by Nadia Taze

Having worked on a “Violence Against Women” program, I am more than aware of the significant health, social and justice problems it poses. No woman, irrelevant of her where in the world she lives, her color, social or economic status etc., should ever be subjected to violence, let alone die from it.

Violence against women and maternal homicide, are extremely important issue which should not be taken lightly or tossed to one side which is why it is imperative that the general public should not be subject to misinformation about the true extent of the problem. Statistics should neither be under estimated, nor over estimated.

Unfortunately, in the USA, a distorted picture of maternal homicides is being painted, suggesting that nationally, their occurrence is bordering on epidemic. To show the subject such blatant disregard by reporting false and misrepresentational facts is unacceptable and irresponsible.

Sharon Rocha, fell victim to this misinformation. During her Larry King Live interview on January 9, she made reference to homicide being the leading cause of death in pregnant women.

KING: You told me during a break that the No. 1 cause of the death of pregnant women is murder. And most of them by the father.
ROCHA: Right.
KING: More than gynecological reasons.
ROCHA: Right.
KING: Do we have any reason as to why? Any thoughts?
ROCHA: The article that I just told you about that I read yesterday had mentioned the same thing that I felt all along. And that is, the husband, boyfriend, father of the child, whatever, just doesn't want that child. They're not ready to have that child. Or they feel it's going to interrupt their lifestyle.

Sharon has been badly misinformed by the media.

The Sensationalism of Maternal Homicide Figures by Washington Post

As Sharon Rocha made mention that her information was gained from an “article”, rather than any official report, I can only assume that she had read a now infamous December 2004, three part news series by reporter Donna St George, printed in the Washington post entitled “Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths”.

In the news piece, St George came to the overblown conclusion that the leading cause of maternal death was homicide, most often carried out by an intimate partner.

It was criticized not only by those working in in the field of crime and violence, but also by others including feminist Wendy McElroy, domestic violence expert Richard Davis and Stephen Baskerville Professor at Howard University (who declared it “Jerry Springer journalism” and accused St George of “cooking the books on a grand scale”),

Much of her article was based around a 2001 study of maternal deaths in Maryland entitled “Enhanced Surveillance for Pregnancy Associated Mortality – Maryland 1993-1998” in which authors Isabelle Horon and Diana Cheng, boldly stated that "A pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be the victim of homicide than to die of any other cause."

They concluded that between 1993 and 1998, of 247 women in Maryland who died whilst pregnant, or within a year of having been pregnant, 50 died of homicide. The next greatest killers were cardiovascular disorders (48), embolisms (21), accidents (18), and hemorrhage (17).

This report was included in the The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and Horon and Cheng’s statement relating the probability of a pregnant woman becoming a murder victim, made headlines across the US daily newspapers. Closer examination of the facts they reported, and the data they rely on, tell a different story.

A large hole was blown in the report when Cheng and Horon, as you may have noticed above, not only included the deaths of pregnant women, but those who had died within 365 days of having been pregnant. Almost three quarters of the deaths examined in the study occurred during the year long period after the woman was no longer pregnant. How could these be termed “pregnancy related” deaths?

Only 23 of the 50 homicides took place whilst the victim was actually pregnant, 3 up to 42 days after having given birth, and 24 took place 43 to 365 days AFTER the pregnancy had ended. Neither did all these pregnancies reach full term. To include a woman who possibly died up to year after having miscarried is in my opinion deluding the public.

If we take the true statistics from this report, i.e. homicides of women who died whilst pregnant (23), they actually account for less than 10% of all maternal deaths. Whilst that figure is still unacceptable, it is hardly the epidemic that Cheng, Horon and St George insist it is.

Dr Harold Weiss of the Center for Injury Research and Control felt concerned enough by Horton and Cheng’s report, that he wrote a letter to JAMA. He noted that due to Maryland having many more homicides per capita than the rest of the country, it was deceiving to suggest that the results of it be a measure for the trend nationally (as did Horon, Cheng and Sharon Rocha).

He cast further scepticism upon the contents when he revealed that the state of Maryland does not perform autopsies on road traffic accidents and therefore, although Horon and Cheng included figures for ALL pregnant homicide victims, they used incomplete figures for fatalities caused by accidents.

Building upon the Maryland report, the Washington Post then “contacted 50 states for all possible data about maternal deaths during pregnancy or postpartum months.” They then combined these statistics with “cases culled from other sources”. Which “other sources” these were, we were not made privy to. St George then came to the conclusion that 1,367 maternal homicides took place over 14 years; 97 per year.

Again, the dubious postpartum months were used and as St George neglected to specify how long that period consisted of, or make a breakdown of her figures into a form where we could receive a clear picture of her data and it’s implications, it’s impossible to know how many actually died during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. Even if we accept her figures, although one maternal homicide is too many, considering nearly 4 million women in the USA give birth annually (a fact not once mentioned in her series), the figure of 97 per year is still a very low one.

With her data collection abilities, St George is obviously doing a better job than the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who in a May 2002 report entitled “Violence Against Women. Data on Pregnant Victims and Effectiveness of Prevention Strategies are Limited” stated:

“Available data on the number of pregnant women who are victims of violence, including violence that results in homicide, are incomplete and lack comparability. Our review found that there is no current national estimate of the prevalence of violence against pregnant women—that is, the proportion of pregnant women who experience violence.

… Little information is available on the number of pregnant homicide victims. Federal homicide data collected by CDC and the FBI do not capture the pregnancy status of female victims.”

In addition, the report also noted that only 17 states try to collect data on pregnancy status on death certificates.

Another example of St George’s misrepresentation of the facts came in her article entitled: “Researchers Stunned by Scope of Slayings.” In this part of the series, she stated:

“In 2002, Massachusetts weighed in with a study that also showed homicide as the top cause of maternal death, followed by cancer.”

This was totally incorrect. Homicide was not the top cause for all maternal deaths. The Massachusetts study found that for white, non-Hispanic women, motor vehicle accidents not homicides were the number one cause of injury related deaths.

It is quite obvious that St George’s news report was at best tabloid sensationalism. Not only were her headlines melodramatic, but she picked up figures and quotes, juggled some around to support her story whilst omitting others which didn’t. She referenced often ambiguous data and research, yet rarely, if ever, actually identifying who were the authors nor the title of the studies.

Sadly, these seriously flawed article presented a distorted picture of a very important subject and paid a disservice to all female victims of violence, all those who work towards its prevention and just as importantly, all men who were portrayed as the only instigators of domestic violence… yet another misconception.