Turn to any cable news channel these days and chances are you'll see something related to the Laci Peterson murder case. Many question how the father, who seemingly had a happy, loving marriage and eagerly awaited the birth of his son, could allegedly commit murder. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that violence against pregnant women is not that uncommon. More unfortunate is that it took such a case to draw attention to the subject.
Domestic violence frequently begins or intensifies during pregnancy. One U.S. study found that 30 percent of women report that domestic violence began during their pregnancy. Another found that anywhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of all battered women are battered during pregnancy. A third study, conducted in Houston and Baltimore in 1991, found that one in six pregnant women report being abused during pregnancy; for 60 percent of these women, the abuse is on-going.
Pregnancy does not cause domestic violence, but it can exacerbate an already volatile situation, or cause a partner already exhibiting violent tendencies to act. A husband or boyfriend may become angry at the perceived "lack of attention" being paid to his needs, as the woman focuses more on taking care of herself and the child. A man who prided himself on his partner's stunning figure may become upset at the changes taking place with her body during the pregnancy. Or he may become upset if her interest in sex declines, or if pregnancy hormones cause her to be more emotional than she had been prior to the pregnancy. A partner may choose to use violence to vent his frustrations on what he perceives to be the source of that anger, thus trying to harm the child.
The stress of becoming a father may also increase a man's violent behaviors. A baby increases financial demands on the household, leaves less time for the relationship, and may shift the woman's attention from her partner to the baby. The father-to-be may worry how he'll be able to provide for his expanding family, and where he'll fit into the new family dynamic. A violent and controlling partner may seek to harm the mother or the child in an attempt to regain her attention.
In addition to the general deleterious effects of domestic violence, violence during pregnancy can affect the health of the unborn child and the mother, and can impair her ability to carry the baby to term. Most physical violence during pregnancy is focused on the abdomen. Repeated physical abuse can result in: fetal fractures; maternal and fetal hemorrhage; rupture of the liver, uterus or spleen; stillbirth; premature separation of the placenta; or premature delivery. The potential for miscarriage also increases with repeated physical abuse - a Yale University study found that abused women are 15 times more likely to suffer a miscarriage.
Violence during pregnancy also can affect indirectly the health of the unborn child. Women abused during pregnancy usually seek out pre-natal care later than non-abused women, and are at an increased risk of having low birth-weight babies. Many battered women use alcohol or other drugs as a coping mechanism, which puts the fetus at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome or drug addiction.
If your partner has become abusive, or if you know a pregnant woman who is being abused, there is help. Please contact AWARE at 800-478-1090.
Amy Maio is the rural outreach coordinator at AWARE, the shelter and counseling center for battered women and children in Juneau.