The entire nation was shocked by reports earlier this month of the murder of 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett. What made Stinnett’s murder particularly shocking was that she was strangled and her baby was then cut from her womb, allegedly by Lisa Montgomery who prosecutors say has admitted the crime.
Stinnett’s murder led the Washington Post’s Donna St. George to pen a three-part series, alarmingly titled “Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths.” The text of the three part series describes the circumstances of the murder of a number of women by boyfriends and husband or ex-es and suggests that such murders are relatively common. St. George writes, for example, that,
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.
St. George goes on to quote Texas Woman’s University’s Judith McFarlane as saying that the 1,367 pregnant women is likely just the tip of the iceberg,
That’s a formidable number — and that’s just the tip. You can’t address a problem that we don’t document. You can’t reduce them. You can’t prevent them. In essence, they don’t exist.
But you don’t have to read very far through the article to realize there are serious problems with it. St. George is typical of mainstream media accounts of amorphous problems in which she simultaneously asserts that little is known about the extent of the problem, but goes on to claim that it must nonetheless be a widespread phenomenon.
Slate’s Jack Shafer noticed the obvious problems and wrote a story for that online magazine criticizing St. George for engaging in such alarmist journalism without much of anything to back up her claims. Shafer writes,
Of course, just one maternal homicide is one more than acceptable, so I’m not arguing with the urgency of St. George’s topic. But she ignores available data that might place the horrific numbers she’s collected into relevant context. According to the Department of Justice, total murders of women in the United States peaked in 1993 at 5,550. The number of murders of women by “intimates”?defined by the government as a spouse, ex-spouse, or boyfriend?has also been falling since 1993 (when there were 1,581), reaching its lowest level since 1976 in 2001 and 2002 (which had 1,202 murders each year). These trends are all the more positive when you factor in the dramatic increase in the U.S. population since that time.
St. George briefly alludes to this good news in a sidebar to Part 1: Criminologist Neil Websdale of Northern Arizona University cautions her about overstating the maternal-homicide problem. More than 1,000 women are killed each year in domestic clashes, Websdale tells her, the overwhelming majority of whom are not pregnant. But she promptly drops the subject. Why? Does she fear that these statistics will undermine her thesis?
But there is a bigger, devastating problem with St. George’s claims about the murder of pregnant women, and it has to do with her careful parsing of the claim that she documented “the killings of 1,367 pregnant women and new mothers since 1990.” As Shafer writes (emphasis added),
The pivotal research in her piece is “Enhanced Surveillance for Pregnancy-Associated Mortality–Maryland, 1993-1998,” a 2001 study of 247 “pregnancy-associated” deaths in Maryland between 1993 and 1998 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that “a pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be a victim of homicide than to die of any other cause,” which St. George quotes favorably.
But the horror of this JAMA study recedes as you read it. We all know what a pregnant woman is: someone who’s carrying a baby. But what is a “recently pregnant” woman? The JAMA study defines the phrase very broadly. By its definition, mothers who give birth are recently pregnant for the 365 days following delivery. Women whose pregnancies end for any reason are also recently pregnant for 365 days after termination. So, a woman who had an abortion, miscarried, or gave birth to a baby would qualify for inclusion in this mortality study if she died with a year of that event.
In fact of the women in the JAMA study that St. George relies on, there were only 50 homicides among the 247 deaths, and only 23 of those occurred while the woman was pregnant. None of which St. George could be bothered to include in her report.
Similarly, St. George notes that in a Maryland study, “slightly more than 10 percent of all homicides among women ages 14 to 44 happened to a pregnant or postpartum woman in the past decade.” But as Shafer notes, some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that 10 percent of women 14 to 44 became pregnant during the same period of time, so its not exactly surprising that 10 percent of female victims of homicide happened to be pregnant at the time. Except, as Shafer notes, just like the JAMA study, the Maryland study also included women who were murdered after they gave birth, miscarried or had an abortion,
Because St. George’s group of Maryland murder victims includes postpartum women, this means the percentage of pregnant women murdered has got to be less than 10 percent. An unstated premise in St. George’s series is that the new findings refute the intuitive sense that pregnancy provides some protection from murder. But, examined closely, St. George’s reporting seems to support the idea that pregnant women are murdered less often than non-pregnant women.
Kudos to Shafer for such a thorough debunking of the Washington Post’s alarmism. Murders like that of pregnant women such as Stinnett or Laci Peterson are certainly horrifying, but they are horrifying in part because they are so rare. St. George’s attempt to imply that maternal murder may be on the rise is undermined by the very information sources she relies upon.
Body Count: Doing the math on the Washington Post’s momicide series. Jack Shafer, Slate.Com, December 24, 2004.
The Muddled Maternal Murder Series: A Washington Post investigation loses its way. Jack Shafer, Slate.Com, December 20, 2004.
Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths. Donna St. George, Washington Post, December 19, 2004.