The number one cause of death for pregnant women may surprise you

Ng Han Guan

All through the pandemic, we’ve heard repeated reports of potential complications for pregnant women who receive COVID vaccinations. At the same time, we’ve long known that complications that arise during pregnancy can tragically result in the death of not only the baby but the mother as well, particularly in areas with insufficient medical facilities. Additionally, heightened suicide rates have been recorded among women who experience clinical depression during pregnancy. But according to a recent report in the journal Nature, none of those are the leading cause of death among expectant mothers or during the post-partum period (42 days after giving birth). Shockingly, the number one cause of death for pregnant women is homicide. And the killer is most frequently found to be the mother’s husband or partner.

Pregnant women in the United States die by homicide more often than they die of pregnancy-related causes — and they’re frequently killed by a partner — according to a study published last month in Obstetrics & Gynecology. Researchers revealed this grim statistic by using death certificates to compare homicides and pregnancy-related deaths across the entire country for the first time.

Although smaller studies have tracked homicides during pregnancy at the state and local level, confirming the scope of the phenomenon on a national scale is valuable, says Vijay Singh, a physician at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, who studies how health-care workers can monitor abuse by current and former romantic partners. “You can’t understand a problem unless you can measure it.”

The study results, he adds, are “stunning”.

I suppose “stunning” is the right word for this. The numbers being reported really aren’t even close. Pregnant women died by homicide at a rate more than twice that of those who died from bleeding or placental disorders. (Those are the causes most frequently described as being “pregnancy-related deaths.”)

Age is also a factor. Pregnant females between the ages of 10 and 44 were found to be 16% more likely to be murdered than their non-pregnant peers. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware that a significant number of girls were even able to conceive at age ten, but apparently, the average age for girls reaching puberty has been steadily declining for some time now. In 1900, the average age for American girls to reach puberty was between 16 and 17. Today the average is 12-13, which is a pretty dramatic shift.

Race was another factor turned up by the study. Black girls and women who are pregnant were three times more likely to die by homicide than those who were not pregnant. Pregnant Black females also accounted for the highest percentage of women dying from non-homicide medical complications leading to pregnancy-related deaths, being 2.5 times more likely to not survive the pregnancy than non-Hispanic white women. This was anecdotally attributed to a combination of poorer healthcare facilities in predominantly Black neighborhoods and overall higher rates of domestic violence of all types in the same areas.

Understanding why so many more homicides happen during pregnancy isn’t easy and, again, relies largely on anecdotal evidence. But it does seem clear that a certain percentage of men are going to react badly – and perhaps violently – to the news that their partner is experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. If the household is already a scene of previous incidents of domestic violence, that likely increases the odds that the news of a pregnancy may result in murder.

The report suggests that this data could be used to support proposals for more comprehensive social programs to track the welfare of women during pregnancy. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but it seems like many people might view such a program as being quite intrusive and a potential path for exposing sensitive personal medical information. It seems as if any such program would have to rely on voluntary participation and broad efforts at public education.

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