I’ve been shaking my head at the latest Washington Post mountain-morphed-from-a-molehill: a giant three-part Page One series (click here, here, and here) claiming to have found a likely new “social syndrome”: homicides of pregnant women and new mothers.
Yes, of course there was Laci Peterson, whose husband, Scott, was just sentenced to death for murdering her and their unborn son, Conner. And then there’s the ghoulish case of Lisa Montgomery, accused of murdering 8-month-pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett of Melvern, Kansas and cutting out her baby girl in order to pass it off as Montgomery’s own. Ghastly, both cases. But evidence of a “social syndrome”? C’mon. Scott Peterson was convicted of wanting Laci dead so that he could carry on with his mistress. Montomery is charged with wanting Stinnett dead so she could steal her child. Completely different circumstances and motives underlay the two crimes.
Furthermore, Post reporter Donna St. George had a tough time coming up with enough slain peripartal moms to fill up her huge, obviously Pulitzer-targeted series, even after the full year of research she says that she and other Post staffers put into it. Even after expanding the definition of a “new mother” to include any woman with a child under 1 year old, St. George counted only 1,367 such homicides since 1990. That’s maybe 100 a year nationwide, a drop in the bucket of the 15,000 or so homicides that occur annually (St. George has worked the numbers to come up with about three times that figure, but it’s still next to nothing proportionally). So she had to pad her series with anecdotes like these:
“Tara Chambers, 29, was gunned down on a June morning inside her North Carolina home. Rebecca Johnson, 16, was shot in the chest as she sat in a pickup truck in Oklahoma. Ana Diaz, 28, was killed in a parking lot in Reston [Va.] as she stopped to get a friend on their way to work.
“They all were pregnant, with futures that seemed sure to unfold over many years. One was a nurse’s assistant who planned to name her daughter T’Kaiya. Another had just bought a house. The youngest was a high school cheerleader….
“But pregnant women like them have been slain in Maryland and Mississippi, in California and Kansas, in Ohio and Illinois. Jenny McMechen, 24, was shot in a friend’s home in Plainfield, Conn., and Kerry Repp, 29, was shot in her Oregon bedroom, and Tasha Winters, 16, was shot in Indiana the day she told her boyfriend about the baby. Ardena Carter, 24, was found dead in the Georgia woods, and Kathleen Terry, 22, was run over in Idaho, and Melesha Francis, 26, was strangled in New York, and Thelma Jones, 21, was shot sitting on her back steps in Louisiana — the day her mother ordered a cake for her baby shower.”
Mississippi, North Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia. Yes, sadly, here and there a few pregnant women or mothers of infants do get killed–but hardly enough to prove that men are turning into Scott Petersons.
Now, I’m not so hot at math, but Jack Shafer, press critic for the ‘zine Slate, is a numbers whiz–and he’s taken an even closer look at the facts and figures to write a scathing commentary on St. George’s series, noting how often she covers up her scant numbers with the word “many”–as in her headline “Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths.” For one thing, Jack notes that when you examine St. George’s numbers closely, you discover that there have been a mere 910 pregnancy-related homicides since 1990, closer to 75 a year than 300 or even 100. Furthermore, although (as Jack points out) St. George’s anecdotes imply that those homicides were committed by “intimates” of the victims (husbands, boyfriends, and the like), the figures actually cover any expectant or new mother who happened to be in the wrong place when, say, a drive-by shooting occurred. Jack writes:
“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.”
No wonder, says Jack, that St. George and her editors preferred to use the word “many” to the actual numbers!
What strikes me as most interesting about this story isn’t that there is no “social syndrome” of pregnancy-related murders–I’d already suspected that. It’s that, low as the pregnancy-related murder rate might be, it’s higher than the death rates connected to pregnancy and childbirth themselves! As St. George writes in her series:
“Five years ago in Maryland, state health researchers Isabelle Horon and Diana Cheng set out to study maternal deaths, using sophisticated methods to spot dozens of overlooked cases in their state. They assumed they would find more deaths from medical complications than the state’s statistics showed. The last thing they expected was murder.
“But in their study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, they wrote that in Maryland, ‘a pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be a victim of homicide than to die of any other cause.'”
And that, as the homicide figures show, is the amazingly good news. For millennia pregnancy and childbirth were potentially life-threatening conditions, so much so that radical feminists still like to accuse men of wanting to put women’s lives at risk by forcing them to have babies. Isn’t it great to know that in the age of modern medicine, that just isn’t so?