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Murdered Pregnant Women: The Racial Divide

By's Lindsay Goldwert

When Laci Peterson became the symbol of maternal homicide in the mass media and in the law books (the Violence Against Unborn Children Act is also known as the Laci and Connor's Law), it put a white face on the horrendous crime of maternal homicide. In reality, that face is actually young, and often, black.

Reality has been further complicated lately with two more high-profile cases of white pregnant women being killed by their boyfriends: Maria Lauterbach, a pregnant Marine whose body was found alongside her fetus' charred remains; and the guilty verdict against Bobby Cutts, a former Ohio police officer convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend and disposing of her body in the woods. Both stories dominated the airwaves earlier this year.

Lauterbach's accused killer, also a Marine, was captured Thursday in Mexico after a three-month manhunt.

Left behind in much of the media attention is a slew of similar cases involving black women.

  • On June 13, 2007 Dawna Denise Wright was at her job, managing the office of a San Diego neurologist. At 2 p.m., a man came to her office bearing a bouquet of roses. "Are these for me?" she reportedly said, surprised. The man took out a gun and shot her.

    Her killer was her on-and-off boyfriend, Roger McDowell, who was also the father of her 8-year-old daughter. An hour later, he confessed to the police but plead not guilty to murder charges.

    Wright was three months pregnant with McDowell's child.

  • On Sept. 8, 2007 in Louisa, Va., Irwin Fountain, 28, was found guilty of shooting his 18-year-old girlfriend, Shantay Latrice Wheeler, 18, to death and dumping her body. Fountain, who was married at the time of the murder, had given Wheeler money for an abortion and became infuriated when he discovered that she was 8 ½-months pregnant. Her body was found in a field five months later with multiple gunshot wounds.
  • On February 7, 2007, Adrian Estrada, a 23-year-old San Antonio youth pastor received the death penalty for choking and stabbing 17-year-old Stephanie Sanchez to death and leaving her to bleed to death on her kitchen floor. Prosecutors said he was angry because the teenager, who told him she had been in love with him, had become pregnant with his child.

    Cases of maternal homicide involving minority women are underreported and underpublicized.

    According to the CDC, black women have a maternal homicide risk about seven times that of white women. Black women ages 25-29 are about 11 times more likely as white women in that age group to be murdered while pregnant or in the year after childbirth.

    Experts say that a fear and mistrust of the police may lead to black women keeping silent about their suffering.

    These women may be afraid that by calling the police, they may be endangering their partner.

    "An abused wife or girlfriend may be hesitant to call 911 for fear that he'll be treated violently or even killed by the police," says Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti, co-director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse in Seattle.

    Mandatory arrest laws used in some states require police to make an arrest during any domestic dispute call. And if the batterer presents the situation to make it look like the wife is the initiator of the violence, she could be the one arrested. If she has children, she may fear losing them to social services.

    The Bush administration's welfare reform policies spent $300 million on programs to encourage marriage among low-income couples. These programs have indirectly impacted violence in the black community, says Kigvamasud'Vasht. "That money would have been better spent on education for these women so that they could support themselves without their abusive partner."

    Young Moms: A Means Of Control

    According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 324,000 women each year experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancy. Of these women, 30 percent say the first incident occurs during pregnancy. If a woman is in an abusive or controlling relationship, a pregnancy can make a relationship all the more volatile.

    "The woman is more vulnerable to abuse during a pregnancy," says Katherine Von Wormer, professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. "She is less likely to be interested in sex. And it may be a time of high stress, economically and otherwise."

    The CDC estimates that 4-8 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. are abused by an intimate partner.

    For men who want to be "in control" of a relationship, an unwanted pregnancy can lead to anger and violence.

    Then there are abusers who use pregnancy as a means to control their girlfriends, to keep them in a vulnerable and dependent condition.

    A recent, disturbing study of 61 poor teenaged Boston-area girls of various ethnic backgrounds in abusive relationships published in the journal Ambulatory Pediatrics revealed that 26 percent had reported that their partners were actively trying to get them pregnant against their will. The girls reported that their partners manipulated their birth control or told them that they wanted them to become pregnant.

    "You think of forced sex as an aspect of abusive relationships, but this takes that abuse a step further to reproductive control of a young woman's body," said study co-author and pediatrician Elizabeth Miller, M.D.

    While a pregnant woman who is older might have the financial resources or support network to seek help, a younger woman may not.

    "A young woman who is poor, underage and may be receiving welfare may be less likely to leave an abusive relationship," says Eboni Colbert, co-director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse. "She may be a ward of the state, she may have no legal guardian. A young woman like that has fewer resources than a woman in her twenties or thirties."

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