Roe v. Laci


Was Laci Peterson a victim of domestic violence? Some advocates were upset she was not cast as one, while other observers noted that there was no evidence that Scott Peterson had abused his wife prior to killing her, and that not all homicides between intimates are a result of the same pathologies that cause domestic violence. Still, one-third of pregnant women who die are murdered—making homicide second only to traffic accidents as a cause of death for expectant mothers. The reasons aren’t entirely understood, but experts point to the economic and emotional stress associated with expecting a child. Whatever the reasons, 40 percent of the time battering begins during a woman’s first pregnancy, and 324,000 pregnant women are battered each year. New mothers remain at heightened risk, particularly if they’re young; one study found that 26 percent of new mothers under 18 experienced partner violence in the first three months after they gave birth.

The homicides are probably underestimated. As of 2002, only 17 states noted pregnancy status on death certificates, and CDC and FBI homicide statistics didn’t capture the data either. Following a 2002 GAO report noting the problem, the CDC revised its standard death certificate guidelines to include pregnancy status, prompting at least two states to follow suit.

But pro-choice advocates are worried that exploring the connection between pregnancy and homicide could erode abortion rights. In March 2004, Congress passed Laci and Conner’s Law, which allows independent charges to be brought against those who hurt or kill an unborn child during an assault on the mother. Anti-abortion advocates see the law as an important step in granting a fetus full legal personhood. Ken Connor, then president of the Family Research Council, asked, “It’s not okay for the husband to kill his wife’s child, but it’s okay for the mother [to have an abortion]?” In Colorado, where legislators recently approved a bill to amend death certificates to include pregnancy status, most Democrats were opposed, which pitted them against Republicans (as usual) and domestic violence advocates (as a consequence).

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  • Elizabeth Gettelman is a former managing editor and public affairs director at Mother Jones. To follow her on Twitter, click here.