Viewpoint: Violence: It's a Fact

Decades after NOW members and other activists founded the first shelters for battered women, shelters in many communities are still turning women and their children away from their doors every day. So we find it appalling that careless commentators, particularly anti-feminist author Christina Hoff Sommers and those who cite her uncritically, now accuse battered women's advocates of exaggerating or misstating statistics on violence against women.

 As anti-feminist polemics switch from blaming the victim to blaming the statistics of victims' advocates, we are in danger of literally throwing the baby out with the bath water. For example, NOW President Patricia Ireland is accused by Sommers of misrepresenting the impact of battery of pregnant women because she once said such battery is the number one cause of birth defects.

 The leading organization working specifically on birth defects and infant mortality, the March of Dimes, does not include in its intentionally narrow definition of birth defects some of the most common defective birth outcomes -- miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, low birthweights and the resulting health difficulties and deaths of infants.

 Admitting a variety of opinions about what constitute birth defects, the March of Dimes is working with the Centers for Disease Control and international agencies to establish a workable, widely-accepted definition of birth defects that includes only conditions present at birth that are abnormalities.

 Low birthweight, in contrast, is the most common problem at birth, affecting one in every 15 babies born each year in the United States and playing a role in 70 percent of infant deaths, according to a March of Dimes fact sheet. Many low birthweight babies suffer from birth defects.

 Battered women are two to four times more likely to deliver low birth weight babies, according to a study reported in a 1989 edition of the American Journal of Nursing. And battery during pregnancy is far more common than even health professionals had realized.

Medical statistics based on women's self-reporting on intake forms alone understate the reality of battering, according to a study published in 1992 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. When interviewed by their health care provider, the study showed, 17 percent of pregnant women admitted being battered, more than double all previously published reports.

 So it is ridiculous to engage in a semantic argument about whether battery of pregnant women is a leading cause of birth defects or the leading cause of birth defects and complications. It is like arguing over whether the flood waters of the Mississippi crested at eight feet or three yards last year. The point is that the results are devastating.

And on that point the March of Dimes and NOW are in total agreement. The March of Dimes has been saying that battered women should be screened for abuse during prenatal care since 1987, when the organization published its an educational manual and video for health professionals, "Protocol of Care for the Battered Woman."

 The challenge of making valid generalizations about violence against women, generally, based on many different studies and statistics is crystal clear in the structure of the most recent tome of statistics published by the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. Under a given topic, such as the number of women battered by their intimate partners each year, the organization cites 30 different studies that suggest the prevalency rate ranges from 259,000 women per year on one extreme to 28 million on the other. Most studies put the figure at 2 to 4 million battered each year.

 In another section headlined "A woman is battered every ___ seconds?" the Clearinghouse cites five different studies that would fill in that blank with anywhere from every 7.4 seconds to every 18 seconds. The point seems to be that this is not a very reliable statistic to cite.

 The real issue -- that domestic violence is prevalent despite years of efforts to establish intervention programs -- often gets lost as our eyes glaze over and our minds boggle at the effort to provide credible numbers. Equally disturbing is that, thanks to Sommers and those who give her air time and ink, it seems as though women's issues, generally, and domestic violence, specifically, are being held to a different, higher standard than other social science research.

 Findings on issues such as drugs and alcohol, homicides and AIDS are imprecise despite years of study and enormous investments of research resources. Yet few people question that these are serious social problems.

We want to stop the suffering of the thousands of women who have to live with the consequences of these very troubling statistics, not debate the statistics themselves. It is time to start questioning the questioning and bring the focus back to our goal -- to promote the health and well-being of women and children.

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