Women's Health

DEATH BY PREGNANCY

The first inkling came in 2001. Isabelle Horon, Dr.PH, and her colleague, Diana Cheng, M.D., of the Maryland Department of Health, were concerned that even after huge advances in prenatal care, too many American women were still dying during pregnancy or shortly after birth. So they launched a study to explore all occurrences of death during pregnancy, not just those directly related to obstetric complications— which was how the National Center for Health Statistics defined “maternal death” at the time.

The further they probed, the more they checked and rechecked, the more undeniable it became: These women weren’t dying only of traditional causes like thromboembolism; they were being killed. Shot. Strangled. Beaten to death. By husbands, boyfriends, lovers. By the fathers of their unborn children.

Horon and Cheng’s findings, published in the March 21, 2001, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that homicide was in fact the leading cause of mortality during pregnancy and the first postpartum year, accounting for one out of five deaths. Simultaneously, a study in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health found that an astounding 43 percent of maternal deaths over eight years in Washington, D.C., were homicides. Compounding the problem: Nearly half of those cases were not included in D.C.’s Center for Health Statistics. In essence, they were invisible. The D.C. study’s chilling title was “Hidden from View.”

The medical community was stunned. How could this be happening under everyone’s radar? More important, why was it happening at all? But the numbers didn’t generate headlines until nearly two years later, when a pregnant Laci Peterson disappeared on Christmas Eve 2002. Her body was found the following April in San Francisco Bay, and her husband, Scott, was arrested for murdering her and their unborn son, Conner. The cold-blooded. Experts who were carrying out research spurred by the 2001 findings knew better.

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