Murder not uncommon cause of death for pregnant women
SAN FRANCISCO — The death of Laci Peterson, as well as the unsolved murder of another pregnant woman whose torso washed up in San Francisco Bay, points to a disturbing phenomenon well known to police, health advocates and experts on battered women: homicide is not an uncommon cause of death for pregnant women.
“People think that pregnancy is a joyful, happy time for families. That’s not always true,” said Phyllis Sharps, an associate professor at The Johns Hopkins University’s school of nursing who researches violence against women.
In some cases, the woman has been abused for years, and the violence escalates to murder after she’s pregnant. In others, pregnancy itself sparks emotions that can lead to murderous rages.
“Violence in intimate relationships is all about power,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “There are fewer times when you can have power over a woman than when she’s pregnant. She’s vulnerable. It’s an easier time to threaten her.”
Friends and family say they saw no signs of strain or abuse in the relationship between Scott and Laci Peterson of Modesto. Peterson pleaded innocent Monday to killing his wife and their unborn son, whose bodies washed up last week not far from the spot where he said he was fishing on Christmas Eve, the day Laci disappeared.
In San Francisco, 24-year-old Evelyn Hernandez was a week away from delivering a second son when she disappeared last May with her 5-year-old boy. Her torso — clad in maternity clothes — was found in the bay three months later. Her son remains missing. The married man she was dating has cooperated with police, and no arrests have been made.
Among all murders of women across the country in 2000 — the most recent yearly statistics available from the U.S. Department of Justice — more than 33 percent were killed by an intimate partner.
And despite all the joy that pregnancy can bring to a relationship, expectant mothers aren’t necessarily spared the danger of being slain.
That’s something advocates have known for years, Gandy said.
“There are a lot of dynamics that go on in a relationship that involves violence — power and control and the need for the abuser to be primary,” she said. “A pregnancy can create a sense of possibly losing that primary position.”
Homicide was found to be the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Maryland, according to a March 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Using death records and coroner reports, state health department researchers found 247 pregnancy-associated deaths between 1993 and 1998. Among those deaths, 50 were murders. By comparison, homicide was the fifth-leading cause of death among Maryland women. And, nationwide, the maternal mortality rate was just 9.9 percent in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Nationally, homicide is a leading killer of young women — pregnant or not. In 1999, homicide was the second-leading cause of death among women ages 20 to 24. It was fifth among women ages 25-34. Accidents are the top cause of death in both age groups.
The Maryland study reinforced at least two earlier studies that found homicide to be the top killer of pregnant women. In Cook County, Ill., 26 percent of the 95 deaths of pregnant women recorded between 1986 and 1989 were slain. In New York, 25 percent of the 293 deaths among pregnant women between 1987 and 1991 were homicides.
Police records show that homicidal violence cuts across all races and classes.
“There is no profile of what these men look like,” Sharps said. “Many are educated, upstanding citizens.”