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In Harm’s Way

Lynn Parsons* will never forget her first pregnancy. One memory in particular stands out: the night her moody husband, Mark*, sat in front of the TV watching a violent cop show. Parsons, 6 weeks along, was upset by the images of a terrorized woman flashing across the screen and asked him to turn off the set. His response: a swift kick toward her abdomen with his steel-toed boot. That was the first time Parsons realized exactly how much danger she and her baby were in. She managed to dodge that blow, but as the months wore on, she wasn't always so lucky.

Parsons married her husband because he was tall, handsome, and quiet. "That was one of the things that attracted me," says the forthright, intelligent 35-year-old woman. "I had grown up with an awful lot of yelling in my house." But during their long courtship, Mark broke the stillness twice by striking and choking her. To woo her back, he once drove a carload of gifts and stuffed animals to the restaurant where she worked to tell her how sorry he was. Though Parsons had doubts about marrying him, his persistence finally won her over. "When you've fallen in love with somebody, you believe it when he says it won't happen again."

In the three years they were married before she got pregnant, Mark never raised a hand to her, so Parsons considered the violence a thing of the past. However, with their baby on the way, the violence not only resurfaced -- it returned with a vengeance. "There was this sudden change," she says. "Instead of months or years between incidents, it was just constant." Tensions erupted almost daily, leading to arguments and tears. More and more, Mark's sarcastic streak was directed at her. He hit her and pushed her off the bed. He choked her against a wall and punched out the plaster near her head. He drop-kicked a hot iron at her.

These are scenarios that most of us find nearly unfathomable. We expect husbands to shower their pregnant wives with love and attention, protecting them against harm -- not causing it. How can we begin to comprehend repugnant images of a woman fending off punches and kicks from the father of her unborn child?

But these assaults happen far more often than we realize. A review of 13 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that between 3.9 percent and 8.3 percent of pregnant women are victims of domestic violence. That translates into a staggering number: Up to 332,000 of the 4 million American women having babies each year suffer physical abuse. And it isn't a problem that affects only low-income families. "Batterers come from blighted neighborhoods and pricey ZIP codes alike," says David Adams, Ph.D., a Cambridge, MA, psychologist who cofounded one of the nation's first batterers' programs. One in five men who enter Adams's program is a professional, he says. "We've had psychologists, doctors, and lawyers."

*Names and some identifying features have been changed

Profile of a Batterer ahead