Violence Threatens Health of Pregnant Women & Newborns, Study Finds

A new study demonstrates conclusively that physical abuse by husbands and boyfriends compromises a woman’s health during pregnancy, her likelihood of carrying a child to term and the health of her newborn.

A Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study, published in the July 2006 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, finds that violence from male partners both in the year prior to and during a woman’s pregnancy harms the health of women during pregnancy and the health of newborn children, and increases the risk of serious health complications during pregnancy. Abuse also increases a woman’s risk of delivering prematurely and having a child who is born clinically underweight and in need of intensive care.

Led by Jay Silverman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Society, Human Development and Health at the HSPH, and Anita Raj, PhD, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, researchers examined data on more than 118,000 women in 26 states who gave birth to live infants from 2000 to 2003. Information was gleaned from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, which gathers information from women around the time of pregnancy.

They found that women experiencing abuse in the year prior to and/or during a recent pregnancy were 40 percent to 60 percent more likely than non-abused women to report high-blood pressure, vaginal bleeding, severe nausea, kidney or urinary tract infections and hospitalization during pregnancy.

Abused women also were 37 percent more likely to deliver preterm, and children of abused women were 17 percent more likely to be born underweight. Both of these conditions pose grave health risks to newborns. Children born to abused mothers were more than 30 percent more likely than other children to require intensive care upon birth.

The study did not examine the impact of emotional abuse.

Silverman offered several possible explanations for the poor health outcomes. “It may be that stress resulting from abuse is having a negative impact on the reproductive endocrine system and leading to poor outcomes during pregnancy,” he said. “Depression, known to result from abuse, has been shown to negatively affect fetal development. Sexual assault commonly co-occurs with physical violence from male partners and may lead to both greater risk of bleeding and urinary tract infections. Also, sexually transmitted infections are significantly more common among women abused by male partners, and such infections are known to compromise health during pregnancy and fetal development.”

“We need to conduct far more research in this area to understand the mechanisms at work,” Silverman added. “But regardless of the mechanisms, it is clear that abuse from husbands and boyfriends represents a serious risk to the health of women, their pregnancies, and their newborn children… As a society, we cannot afford to allow prevention of this grave threat to so many mothers and children to remain a low public health priority.”

The HSPH study was supported by a grant from the Division of Reproductive Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michele R. Decker, MPH, and Elizabeth Reed, MPH, both of the HSPH, co-authored the Journal article on the findings.

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