There has been a growing awareness about the prevalence and severity of violence against women during the past several decades. It has been established that women are more likely to be victimized by their intimate partners than by strangers on the street, and there is a substantial amount of information about women’s experiences of emotional, physical, and sexual violence. An important issue that has been raised by researchers is the connection between pregnancy and violence against women.
In 1975, Gelles first drew attention to this issue in a published article by exploring the connection between women’s experiences of violence and pregnancy. Early research with battered women indicated that pregnancy was often a high-risk time for increased violence. Violence during pregnancy can take a variety of forms, but battered women commonly report increased emotional and verbal abuse; physical assaults directed at their breasts and genital and abdominal areas; and sexual violence during pregnancy. Importantly, many women also report sexual violence by their intimate partners immediately following childbirth. Reports about women’s experiences led to an awareness that abuse was a health risk for pregnant women. In 1992, the American Medical Association published a guide that advised practitioners to routinely assess for abuse during prenatal and postpartum visits with women. This guide was also a central focus at the National Conference on Violence and Reproductive Health sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June of 1999.
Some of the earliest studies indicated that 40% to 60% of battered women experienced abuse during pregnancy. More recent research has sought to determine how often violence during pregnancy occurs within the general population of women. Most typically, researchers have found that approximately 4% to 8% of women experience some form of violence when they are pregnant. However, estimates of prevalence vary considerably (from .9% to 20%) with different sampling strategies and measures of violence. This variation has led some researchers to question whether pregnant women are at increased risk for violence compared to nonpregnant women. One important consideration is that young women (under the age of 25) are likely to experience both intimate violence and pregnancy and that it is plausible that the relationship is spurious. Although researchers have not concluded with certainty that pregnancy increases a woman’s chance of being abused by her partner, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that being pregnant does not necessarily offer women protection from an intimate partner.
Women’s experiences of violence from their intimate partners vary greatly, and recent research indicates the importance of considering sexual violence and women’s experiences of unintended pregnancies. Research indicates that once some battered women are pregnant, they experience a protective period where they suffer less violence; however, others experience an increase in the frequency and severity of violence. Some women’s experiences of violence by their partners do not change regardless of the pregnancy.
Women may experience violence by their partner during one pregnancy yet not with another pregnancy. For those who experience violence during pregnancy, it can occur at any time during pregnancy, although some researchers have found that the violence is likely to escalate during the third trimester.
There are many sociological factors that have been attributed to why someone would abuse his pregnant partner. Male jealousy of the fetus or the attention that many pregnant women receive may be factors contributing to higher levels of violence. Pregnancy is also recognized as a time of change, and differences in the patterns of violence may be the result of challenges to an abusive partner’s control and sense of power in a relationship. Another factor is that some men believe they are entitled to sexually and physically abuse their partners. Pregnancy does not necessarily alter men’s normative expectations about their “right” to abuse their partners; with regard to sexual violence, women’s experiences may escalate if they are prohibited from having sexual intercourse. Pregnancy may be perceived as interfering with some men’s beliefs that they are entitled to have sex with their partner on demand.
Violence against women during pregnancy has serious implications for women and their pregnancy outcomes. Some researchers, such as Campbell, Oliver, and Bullock, have found that battering during pregnancy is a risk factor for more severe abuse in relationships and eventual homicide. Women who are abused by their partners during pregnancy often suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Physical and sexual abuse during pregnancy has also been linked to miscarriages and stillbirths. Women who are raped by their partners during pregnancy are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, urinary tract infections, and vaginal and rectal tearing. Many women are sexually abused by their partners following their release from the hospital, and Bohn and Parker note that this abuse can result in increased trauma to the genital area including severe lacerations and failure of episiotomies to heal. Violence against women during pregnancy can seriously affect pregnancy outcome. Many studies associate low birth weight, premature births, fetal bruising, and neonatal death with violence against women during pregnancy. Thus, violence against women during pregnancy is a serious problem with significant effects.
- Bohn, D., ; Parker, B. (1993). Domestic violence and pregnancy: Health effects and implications for the nursing practice. In J. Campbell ; J. Humphreys (Eds.), Nursing care of survivors of family violence (chap. 6). St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby.
- Campbell, J. (2002). Health consequences of intimate partner violence. The Lancet, 359(9314), 1331–1336.
- Campbell, J., Oliver, C., ; Bullock, L. (1998). The dynamics of battering during pregnancy. In J. Campbell (Ed.), Empowering survivors of abuse (pp. 81–90). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Gazmararian, J. A., Lazorick, S., Spitz, A., Ballard, T., Saltzman, L., ; Marks, J. (1996). Prevalence of violence against pregnant women. Journal of the American Medical Association, 275, 1915–1920.
- Gelles, R. (1975). Violence in pregnancy: A note on the extent of the problem and needed services. Family Coordinator, 24, 81–86.
- Libbus, M., Bullock, L., Nelson, T., Robrecht, L., Curry, M. A., ; Bloom, T. (2006). Abuse during pregnancy: Current theory and new contextual understandings. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 927–938.
- Newberger, E., Barkan, S., Lieverman, E., McCormick, M., Yllo, K., Gary, L., et al. (1992). Abuse of pregnant women and adverse birth outcomes: Current knowledge and implications for practice. Journal of American Medical Association, 267, 2370–2373.