Experts, survivors explain how second-hand trauma can scar the unborn

Source: American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology Graphic by Ashley Fountain

By Ashley Fountain


Out of a total of 27,000 studies listed in a Google Scholar  search on the topic of domestic violence from 2012-2016 relating to women, men, the LGBT community and children, research shows that only 526 of those studies have been done focusing on the cycle of violence as it relates to expectant mothers and the negative effects on the unborn. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned mothers that the inability to escape violence during pregnancy poses tremendous risk. Fetal risks shared by the CDC include spontaneous abortion and maternal stress inducing alcohol or drug use in some mothers, which may lead to further long-term cognitive impairment and developmental delay symptoms in the child. Three mothers who are domestic violence survivors said pregnancies that progressed throughout violent interactions had a higher likelihood of ending in miscarriage. Those with children who survived attacks during pregnancy said they believed their abuse at that time wouldn’t have a harmful impact on their child. Despite this all too common belief, experts have evidence that the unborn victim suffers.

“The first trimester would be when the fetus and mother are most susceptible to outside harms causing miscarriage,” said Barbara Frank, a Boston OB-GYN. “Strong physical abuse during this period can cause miscarriage and bleeding. However, at any stage, violence can cause pre-term labor and bleeding,” she said. “Many of these women experiencing violence are treated for depression, meaning they take anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication,” Frank said. “Although these are relatively safe in pregnancy, they can cause issues after birth with the fetus being sleepy or even cause withdrawal symptoms. The higher the dose and longer the mom is on the medication, the worse the outcome will be for the unborn child.”

Medical professionals can often provide intervention resources for an expectant mother experiencing domestic violence. Frank shared some of  the very important resources that exist in Boston. “Firstly, in all offices and hospitals there are posters that state if you are being abused by someone you love please call. This helps with exposure to patients and new moms to understand that this is not normal,” Frank explained. “Also, each hospital has social workers who can help. There are also shelters that are for pregnant women and women with children.”

Although some emergency intervention places are available for expectant mothers to turn to, Frank said that in her experience, many of these women are too scared to let anyone know. “When women tell their provider, we are not required to tell social services unless their children are at risk. It can be very difficult for the woman to leave the situation,” she said. “We just refer to counseling and make sure she has a safe place to go in an emergency.”

Frank shares a link on the website in which she provides to women experiencing domestic violence during pregnancy as a resource.

Graphic made by, Ashley Fountain
Graphic by Ashley Fountain
Source: American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology

In 2002, The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, reported that the crime of rape remained the most underreported, least indicted and least convicted of any major felony in Massachusetts. Only 16 out of 100 victims reported the crime to police and of those numbers only 1 percent of convicted rapists served a prison term of more than one year.

In Boston, 2015 reports shows that reported rape sharply increased especially on college campuses, such as Harvard and Boston College. On a national level,  The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported that rape continued to be the most underreported crime through 2015, with a total of  63 percent of sexual assaults not submitted to police.


Ellie B
Domestic Violence Unit Director Ellie Breitmaier. Photo by Ashley Fountain

A report written by professionals within the Journal of Obstetric Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing performed a seven-year study finished in 2015, which concluded perceived fertility control and pregnancy outcomes among abused women. The findings linked Intimate Partner Violence with a greater likelihood of unintended pregnancy. Out of the JOGNN study of 282 women, nearly one third of those studied reported at least one unintended pregnancy as a result of their abusers’ refusal to use birth control. Professionals have determined unintended pregnancy puts the mother at even greater risk for Intimate Partner Violence.

“Women who are pregnant are going to focus on their body and the baby’s well-being, which takes away attention from the battering spouse or boyfriend,” said Ellie Breitmaier, Vermont Domestic Violence Unit Director of the Family Services Division. “What I have heard from victim survivors is their abuser tells them he will control medical appointments, which dominates pre-natal care and this often continues into the birth process itself, leaving the mother’s and baby’s needs and safety to be unmet,” said Breitmaier. “Many batterers will undermine mom’s ability to take care of her child. Through the Department of Children and Families this develops into neglect cases as these infants are often failure to thrive.”

Babies born to battered women have a higher likelihood of becoming failure to thrive, which means these newborns will fail to develop to their normal full potential in early childhood, Breitmaier explained. In severe cases, failure to thrive can be fatal, she concluded.

Domestic abuse survivor, Anna, whose name has been changed for protective reasons, said she lost her child five months into her pregnancy, due to a violent assault from her ex-boyfriend. Although she knew he had a bad temper during the duration of their relationship, she said she never expected what was to come.

“I was so happy to be expecting. I was afraid of the unknowns, but I knew we could get through anything together,” Anna said. “When the doctors told me we were having a little girl after our ultrasound, my relationship turned on its head,” she said. “When we came home from the ultrasound, Adam told me we needed to abort the baby and try again for a boy. When I resisted, in shock and began to cry, he snapped, ran out to the kitchen, came back in our bedroom and ran towards me. I screamed for him to get away from me, when he proceeded to repeatedly bash my stomach… I began to bleed all over the floor, later passing out.”

Anna said the assault during her pregnancy is still as fresh in her mind as if it happened yesterday. “When you’re expecting, that child becomes your world. When an abuser takes your child’s life, a part of your life forever ends too,” she said. 

Experts and organizations supporting survivors of Intimate Partner Violence provided a recent study showing the risk of coerced pregnancy and forced childbearing on mothers who experienced domestic violence. Experts of the study shared a survey done by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, with 3,000 women who called their national hotline. More than 25 percent reported that their abusive partner sabotaged their source of birth control to entrap them, posing greater risk to the unborn child.

About Ashley Fountain 4 Articles

Ashley Fountain is a multimedia journalism graduate student at Emerson College. With her love for journalism and strong care for others, Ashley hopes to open a door and provide an outlet for all voices to be heard in her future career as a broadcast journalist. Ashley looks forward to every reporting opportunity that will come her way in the near future and will always continue to be an advocate for victims and survivors of domestic violence.