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The Unspoken Pregnancy Danger

Laci and Scott Peterson seemed like a golden couple. They were young, good-looking, and appeared to be very much in love. And to make their joy complete, after a struggle with infertility, 27-year-old Laci was pregnant with the couple's first child. Scott gave every sign of being thrilled about the impending birth: Neighbors often saw him strolling down the street, hand-in-hand with his pregnant wife. Laci's mom, Sharon Rocha, considered the couple's life idyllic. "I think everyone envies their relationship," she told journalists soon after Laci was reported missing. "This is just the center of her world, to have her baby and be with her husband."

But there was also a dark side to their marriage. During Laci's pregnancy, Scott, a 30-year-old fertilizer salesman, began having an affair. And although Laci was eight months along on Christmas Eve, 2002, Scott says he took off on a daylong fishing trip, leaving her home alone. Laci was never seen alive again: Nearly four months later, her body and that of her unborn son, who was to be named Connor, washed up on the California shore, near the area where her husband claims to have been fishing. On April 18, 2003, police arrested Scott, who had dyed his brown hair strawberry-blond and was reportedly carrying $10,000 in cash. On March 16, 2005, Peterson was convicted for the premeditated murder of his wife and unborn son, and formally sentenced to death.

An Overlooked Threat

Although most of us were shocked by this headline-grabbing case, experts were not. In 2001 a chilling study by the University of Maryland reported that the number one cause of death among pregnant women isn't any of the health problems moms-to-be worry about -- such as preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure) or childbirth complications -- but homicide. Violence accounted for 20 percent of pregnancy-associated deaths, more than double the number for blood clots, excessive bleeding, high blood pressure disorders, or infections. The study, which looked at the deaths of women of childbearing age in Maryland between 1993 and 1998, also found that expectant or new mothers are three times more likely to be victims of homicide than women who haven't been pregnant in the previous year.

What kind of person could kill a pregnant woman? Too often, the perpetrator is the very person you'd expect to be the most tender and protective toward her: the father of her child. Overall, about one-third of female murder victims in the U.S. are killed by their husband, boyfriend, or former partner. While fatal attacks on pregnant women are relatively rare, battering is more prevalent. Last March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta, Georgia, reported that 5.3 percent of mothers-to-be are physically abused by their partners. That adds up to more than 210,000 women a year.

Yet most doctors don't ask patients about domestic violence -- even though it occurs more often than some of the medical conditions that pregnant women are routinely screened for, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or neural tube defects like spina bifida. "Battering is swept under the rug because many doctors aren't comfortable talking about the topic or think women will be offended," says Cecelia Hann, M.D., a member of the medical executive committee of the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, in Los Angeles, and an ob-gyn in private practice.