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Shanann Watts murder: Are you more likely to be the victim of domestic abuse if you are pregnant?

When Colorado mother Shanann Watts was murdered last week, allegedly at the hands of her husband , according to law enforcement officials, she was pregnant with her third child.

Watts’ death cast a spotlight on a grim, often overlooked and historically underreported statistic – thousands of pregnant women in the United States are victims of domestic violence each year.  

A significant number of those abused women – around 15 percent according to one study – end up being killed by their “intimate partner” – a husband, boyfriend, ex-husband or former boyfriend.

>>Shanann Watts’ girls may have been dead when she got home, husband’s charges show

While hard numbers are sometimes difficult to find – maternal deaths due to intimate partner violence (IPV) are often not recorded by states as such – a report by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimates that as many as 324,000 pregnant women in the United States are abused each year. 

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Does being pregnant mean a woman is more likely to be abused? Not necessarily. A more reliable determiner of abuse during pregnancy seems to be if there has been violence in the relationship prior to a woman becoming pregnant. And if there has been violence before the pregnancy, then the violence during the pregnancy is often described by the victim as having been worse.

> >Related story: Colorado father charged with killing pregnant wife, 2 daughters, says wife killed children

A study done by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence showed that a majority of the women who suffered from IPV during pregnancy had experienced abuse before.

According to the study:

Pregnant abused women tend to report experiencing more severe violence compared to non-pregnant abused women

Pregnant women often experience multiple violent incidents during pregnancy 

Women abused both before and during pregnancy experience increases in the severity or frequency of violence during pregnancy

Perhaps the most startling statistic drawn from that study and one done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that only automobile accidents outrank domestic violence as the leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers whose deaths are classified as “injury-related.” 

The CDC study looked at 617 murders between 1991 and 1999. Of pregnant women or new mothers who died as a result of trauma, 31 percent died as a result of domestic abuse. Forty-four percent of traumatic maternal deaths were a result of automobile accidents. Unintentional injuries (such as falls) or suicide combined for 23 percent of the deaths.

A broader 2017 CDC study looking at statistics from 30 states over an 11-year period showed that of 100,000 women who were murdered in the United States during that time period, more than half were killed by an intimate partner.

Fifteen percent of those killed in an IPV incident were pregnant. Eighteen percent of the pregnant women murdered by an intimate partner were black and 12 percent white.

Black women and young women were far more likely to be killed in an IPV incident than other races or age groups, the study showed. A black woman’s maternal homicide risk is seven times that of a white woman. A young black woman – between the ages of 25 and 29 – is 11 times more likely to be killed as a white woman the same age.

A study by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that:

Between 1990 and 2004, 56 percent of the 1,300 pregnant women murdered in the United States were shot to death. The other 44 percent were either strangled, as Watts was, or stabbed. 

A majority of the women killed were murdered during their first trimester.

A little more than a quarter of pregnant teens report being battered by their boyfriends after they learned of the pregnancy. 

It’s believed that slightly more than half of intimate partner physical violence is reported to law enforcement. 

Almost half of intimate partner homicides are committed by dating partners

How to get help

If you or someone you know are being abused, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-HELP (7233) for help. Or call 9-1-1 for help from your local law enforcement agencies.

Shanann Watts, 34, is pictured with her daughters, 4-year-old Bella Watts (top right) and 3 -year-old Celeste Watts (bottom right). Shanann Watts was about 15 weeks pregnant when police say her husband, Chris Watts, killed her and their girls Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. Chris Watts, 33, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of tampering with physical evidence in connection with their deaths. (Colorado Bureau of Investigation via AP)

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