Homicide Remains a Top Cause of Maternal Mortality

Heidi Splete

October 14, 2021

The prevalence of homicide was 16% higher in pregnant women or postpartum women than nonpregnant or nonpostpartum women in the United States, according to 2018 and 2019 mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Homicide has long been identified as a leading cause of death during pregnancy, but homicide is not counted in estimates of maternal mortality, nor is it emphasized as a target for prevention and intervention, wrote Maeve Wallace, PhD, of Tulane University, New Orleans, and colleagues.

Data on maternal mortality (defined as "death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy from causes related to or aggravated by pregnancy") were limited until the addition of pregnancy to the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death in 2003; all 50 states had adopted it by 2018, the researchers noted.

In a study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, the researchers analyzed the first 2 years of nationally available data to identify pregnancy-associated mortality and characterize other risk factors such as age and race.

The researchers identified 4,705 female homicides in 2018 and 2019. Of these, 273 (5.8%) occurred in women who were pregnant or within a year of the end of pregnancy. Approximately half (50.2%) of the pregnant or postpartum victims were non-Hispanic Black, 30% were non-Hispanic white, 9.5% were Hispanic, and 10.3% were other races; approximately one-third (35.5%) were in the 20- to 24-year age group.

Overall, the ratio was 3.62 homicides per 100,000 live births among females who were either pregnant or within 1 year post partum, compared to 3.12 homicides per 100,000 live births in nonpregnant, nonpostpartum females aged 10-44 years (P = .05).

"Patterns were similar in further stratification by both race and age such that pregnancy was associated with more than a doubled risk of homicide among girls and women aged 10–24 in both the non-Hispanic White and non-Hispanic Black populations," the researchers wrote.

The findings are consistent with previous studies, which "implicates health and social system failures. Although we are unable to directly evaluate the involvement of intimate partner violence (IPV) in this report, we did find that a majority of pregnancy-associated homicides occurred in the home, implicating the likelihood of involvement by persons known to the victim," they noted. In addition, the data showed that approximately 70% of the incidents of homicide in pregnant and postpartum women involved a firearm, an increase over previous estimates.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the lack of circumstantial information and incomplete data on victim characteristics, the researchers noted. Other key limitations included the potential for false-positives and false-negatives when recording pregnancy status, which could lead to underestimates of pregnancy-associated homicides, and the lack of data on pregnancy outcomes for women who experienced live birth, abortion, or miscarriage within a year of death.

However, the results highlight the need for increased awareness and training of physicians in completing the pregnancy checkbox on death certificates, and the need for action on recommendations and interventions to prevent maternal deaths from homicide, they emphasized.

"Although encouraging, a commitment to the actual implementation of policies and investments known to be effective at protecting and the promoting the health and safety of girls and women must follow," they concluded.

Data Highlight Disparities

"This study could not be done effectively prior to now, as the adoption of the pregnancy checkbox on the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death was only available in all 50 states as of 2018," Sarah W. Prager, MD, of the University of Washington, Seattle, said in an interview.

"This study also demonstrates what was already known, which is that pregnancy is a high-risk time period for intimate partner violence, including homicide. The differences in homicide rates based on race and ethnicity also highlight the clear disparities in maternal mortality in the U.S. that are attributable to racism. There is more attention being paid to maternal mortality and the differential experience based on race, and this demonstrates that simply addressing medical management during pregnancy is not enough – we need to address root causes of racism if we truly want to reduce maternal mortality," Prager said.

"The primary take-home message for clinicians is to ascertain safety from every patient, and to try to reduce the impacts of racism on health care for patients, especially during pregnancy," she said.

Although more detailed records would help with elucidating causes versus associations, "more research is not the answer," Prager stated. "The real solution here is to have better gun safety laws, and to put significant resources toward reducing the impacts of racism on health care and our society."

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Prager had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the editorial advisory board of Ob.Gyn News.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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