Editors have a nasty little habit of telling news writers, "you missed the lead," when a complicated story buries itself in facts and figures but fails to discover the salient feature that made it worth doing and thus worth reading. When an entire newspaper, and then its ombudsman, miss the lead, it is worth a few lines.
The Washington Post began an ambitious three-part series Sunday, December 19, entitled "Pregnancy and Homicide: The Unknown Toll," the gist of which was that the states and the CDC and whatever agencies keep track of intentional deaths are remiss in keeping records regarding the killing of "new or expectant mothers."
The series cites many statistics, observes that 13 states don't keep such records, but asserts its discovery that there have been at least 1,367 homicides of pregnant or new mothers since 1990. But the main burden of the series is anecdotal, sketches of the victims, how they were killed pre- and post-partum. "Their deaths passed quietly," Part One begins, detailing three victims slain in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
"They all were pregnant," the series says, "with futures that seemed sure to unfold over many years." (Given the life-expectancy of young Americans, this is undeniable.) In this first installment are photos of 24 victims, and in the series overall the stories of several. All but two of these dozens of accounts share something in common. In the two dissociative cases, the women were killed by their husbands, men to whom they were married (legally, we must presume). In all, not some, all, of the other cases, marching in thanatoid succession through the series, the women were slain by the fathers or suspected fathers of their fetuses or babies to whom they were not married.
In short, the series could have been slugged: "Unmarried Pregnancy and Homicide." But that would spoil the aseptic objectivity of a numbers study.
The series does not underscore this salient feature of the relationship between the victim and the assailant. By omission it simply accepts it. Shameka Fludd of Columbia, Maryland, we are told, had a comfortable apartment. At 23 she already had "two sweet kids." We are told, "the [new] pregnancy had come as a surprise. Her circumstances were not ideal, not what a single mother would have chosen..."
"You don't have to have anything to do with the baby," she is said to have told the father. But she told her sisters the father already had sired two babies elsewhere and told her another would ruin his life. He shot her in the head as she lay in bed. Her convicted killer will be sentenced next month. Grandmother is raising one of the other two and one is with the father.
It goes on, case after case. Some women in their upper 20s. One as young as 14. Shot, stabbed, in a couple of cases the non-surviving fetus being buried with the dead mother. The series tells us no one knows exactly how many children are rescued from the wombs of their dying mothers. The tone of the series is exasperation that better records of pregnancy and homicide have not been kept. Not with choices made.
The final installment features the case of Rae Carruth, the all-American first round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, and the killing of Cherica Adams five years ago.
"Her soul mate," she had described Carruth to her parents in Charlotte. But when Adams got pregnant, one night she followed Carruth's car down a lonely road, was hemmed in, and shot by men in another car. Carruth is serving time for conspiracy, is appealing his conviction , and insists he had nothing to do with the slaying. "We were never boyfriend and girlfriend," he's quoted as saying. "We slept together."
The Washington Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, dealt with the series the next Sunday after it began, calling it a "prodigious, valuable" study. And again the assessment is statistical. "The criticism that seemed most worthy of attention was directed at the statistical underpinnings of the project, especially those statistics that were not in the articles, and the cautions about the data." In short, does pregnancy really increase a woman's risk of getting killed in America? Well, it sure increased the chances for those we were told about, most especially unmarried pregnancy.
Nowhere in the series is there a suggestion that somebody, aside from the statistics collectors, is making a mistake, that some societal acceptance is now also a recipe for death. There is a hint of it when Pat Brown, a criminal profiler from Minneapolis, is quoted as saying, "If the woman doesn't want the baby, she can get an abortion. If the guy doesn't want it, he can't do a damn thing about it. He is stuck with the child for the rest of his life, and he's stuck with that woman for the rest of his life. If she goes away, the problem goes away." In other words, the acceptance of unmarried pregnancy, by the subject of it and by her family and friends, carries with it a measure of danger.
Pat Brown's "if she goes away, the problem goes away" isn't always true. There is Chancellor Lee Adams, now 5 years old. He was delivered from the dying Cherica Adams by Caesarean section and now of course is being raised by his grandmother. He has cerebral palsy, needs help walking even with his braces. The series tells us he has learned about 12 words.
It would be helpful to America, to its women, and to the general welfare, if one of the early words in all vocabularies were "no."
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