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Pregnant Women Are 16 Percent More Likely to Die by Homicide. What Happens After Roe?

Abortion care at least gives them a chance to untether themselves from an abusive relationship, quell the anger of men who don’t want a child and potentially prevent a child from being born into violence

In October, a 31-year-old woman named Vanessa Anderson was found dead in her apartment in Racine, Wisconsin, naked and bleeding from blunt trauma and stab wounds. 

The mother of two was pregnant, and just eight days away from her due date. Her unborn child died in the womb as a result of the attack. It took police eight months to track down and build a case against the perpetrator, but last week, they revealed their suspect is the father of the child — 43-year-old William Bunch. 

Bunch admitted to investigators that he and Anderson had a sexual relationship, but denied being the father of her child because his wife would leave him, according to the criminal complaint. A postmortem DNA paternity test confirmed he was indeed the father, and a witness claimed that Bunch had asked them for a crowbar to break into Anderson’s home and “take care of the situation,” according to police. 

Anderson is survived by her two daughters, who are 12 and 13 years old. “She tried her hardest to take care of me and my sister,” the older child, Lanyah Anderson, told FOX6 Milwaukee. 

Despite how egregious and disturbing Anderson’s murder may be, her story isn’t an uncommon one in America, where pregnant people face increased risk for abuse and death at the hands of their partners. The dismantling of Roe v. Wade only worsens the odds for pregnant victims, who often rely on abortion to untether themselves from an abusive relationship, quell the anger of men who don’t want a child and potentially prevent a child from being born into violence. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that one in six abused women is first abused during pregnancy, with more than 320,000 pregnant women experiencing verbal and physical violence every year. And as a national study found in 2021, American women who are pregnant or are 42 days past being pregnant (the “post-partum” period) die by homicide at more than twice the rate of death than by the leading “pregnancy-related” causes, like bleeding or placental disorders. 

Even just carrying a fetus raises the risk of victimization, as the study found that women who are pregnant, or who ended a pregnancy in the past year, are killed at a rate 16 percent higher than non-pregnant women. And many times, they’re killed by their partner. “A lot of this violence and physical abuse begins with pregnancy,” says Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice president of the nonprofit Legal Momentum and a noted expert on gender bias and domestic violence. “It comes down to men finding a mechanism of control, forcing a woman to do what they want and treating the child as the hostage to maintain that control.” 

Escaping is a difficult, often traumatic puzzle for pregnant people, who must figure out whether carrying the pregnancy or ending it will bring them the most solace. A third of all domestic violence survivors report that their partners limited their childbearing choices in abusive ways, and it’s no surprise that between six and 22 percent of women terminate their pregnancies because they’re in an abusive relationship.

What remains clear is that some violent men will go to any length to avoid raising an unwanted child, instead choosing to kill a woman simply because she wanted to carry a pregnancy to term. 

For example, there’s the story of Akia Eggleston, the 22-year-old from Baltimore who was allegedly killed by her partner, Michael Robertson. Robertson allegedly weaved an intricate plan to trick Eggleston with promises of long-term love and raising a family together, convincing her to withdraw money to help pay for a down payment on a house. She then disappeared on May 3, 2017; while the motive is unclear, investigators say that Robertson had extended disputes about Eggleston keeping the pregnancy, as well as a fight with another romantic partner, a 22-year-old woman, the night before Eggleston’s disappearance. 

In North Carolina, a young woman named Candace Pickens was killed by a gunshot to the head in May 2016, fired by a boyfriend who had a history of violence and domestic abuse. Family members and those close to Pickens alleged that Nathaniel Elijah Dixon refused to have a child with her, and shot Pickens and her three-year-old son (who survived) as retribution. Three years later, Dixon was sentenced to life in prison. 

In Southern California, a pregnant woman named Crystal Taylor was shot dead in 2001 while walking down the stairs from her apartment. Fifteen years later, investigators figured out what had happened: The father, Derek Smyer, had begged her to get an abortion and ultimately solicited a local gang member to pull the trigger when Taylor was 20 weeks pregnant. 

There are countless other news stories of women being attacked or killed because they chose to keep a pregnancy that the father didn’t want, and it contextualizes why a wide variety of contraceptive and abortion resources are necessary to help pull people out of “reproductive coercion.” Experts warn that crippling safe, legal abortion networks in America will only worsen the odds of women experiencing violence, especially if abusive partners control their decisionmaking and finances, making it difficult (if not impossible) for a pregnant person to seek a way out. This is disproportionately true for women of color, who are more likely to experience “intimate partner violence” and to live in areas without access to abortion care. 

“We see it in teen dating violence, with the notion that, ‘Hey, if I make you pregnant, you’ll never leave me. I’ll have control of you forever,’ Schafran says. “Whether it’s forcing someone to become pregnant, or forcing someone to have an abortion, it’s all tied to the idea that a woman’s reproductive capacity is a mechanism of control for the man.” 

It’s also a huge reason why abortion access serves as a potential tool to reset the circumstances of one’s life and escape patterns of sustained abuse. This is borne out by research, too: As a 2014 study demonstrated, pregnant women who could not access abortion care and ultimately gave birth are more likely to remain in physically abusive relationships over the next two and a half years. “In particular, women who report violence as a reason for abortion describe not wanting to expose children to violence and believing that having the baby will tether them to an abusive partner,” the authors noted. 

The point isn’t that abortion access would stop the violent targeting of pregnant women by their partners; women like Eggleston, Pickens and Taylor didn’t seek the procedure out. Rather, experts suggest that pregnant people need all the resources they can get, so that they have various options for support and access to those options at different moments in time. Otherwise, they’re just all the more trapped.