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Women's Health

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Women with stressful life events are more likely to be physically abused during pregnancy, usually by their partners

An estimated 4 to 8 percent of women are physically abused when they are pregnant. Women who experience several stressful life events, for example, financial hardship, a partner with an alcohol or drug problem, or separation or divorce, are more likely than other women to be physically abused before or during pregnancy, according to a study supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (National Research Service Award training grant T32 HS00032).

Doctors should ask pregnant women about stress and abuse in their lives and make appropriate referrals, for example, to domestic violence programs for abused women. That's the suggestion of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, researchers who conducted the study. They analyzed data from a North Carolina Statewide representative survey of over 2,600 postpartum women (most of whom were married, white, high school graduates, and aged 20 or older; only 12 percent were poor). Based on survey responses, the researchers examined the link between women's sociodemographic characteristics, experience of 13 stressful life events during the year before childbirth, and experience of physical abuse. Overall, 14 percent of the women had suffered through five or more stressful events (high stress level), and almost 9 percent were physically abused during the year before pregnancy and/or during pregnancy (usually by their husbands/partners).

A high level of stress was 12 times as likely among women who had been abused both before and during pregnancy and 14 times as likely among women abused before but not during pregnancy. Physical abuse was positively associated with 5 of 13 stressors studied. Women who had been abused at some point in their lives were more likely than those who had never been abused to have argued more often with their partners in the past year (74 vs. 26 percent), been involved in physical fights (49 vs. 2 percent), had a loved one with an alcohol or drug problem (46 vs. 15 percent), recently separated or divorced (36 vs. 9 percent), and endured financial problems (49 vs. 24 percent).

See "Stressful life events and physical abuse among pregnant women in North Carolina," by Sandra L. Martin, Ph.D., Jeffrey M. Griffin, M.S., Lawrence L. Kupper, Ph.D., and others, in the September 2001 Maternal and Child Health Journal 5(3), pp. 145-152.

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