Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Effects of Domestic Abuse on the Unborn Child

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Effects of Domestic Abuse on the Unborn Child

Article excerpt


This paper explores the relationship of domestic violence toward a pregnant mother on the subsequent behavior of her child. Through examination of the literature on physical abuse during pregnancy a picture emerges of the fetal environment. Exposure to this environment was consistently shown to have detrimental effects in infancy and childhood and in later adult life particularly evidenced by emotional and behavioral disorders, and increased evidence of criminal and violent behavior and suicide.


In recent years, the issue of domestic violence has received much attention in scientific literature. While violence against women has been pervasive throughout human history, it is only recently that Western society openly rejected this behavior and created preventive laws. Domestic violence has several components which increase in severity over time. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse occur in a specific order that are all designed to gain control of the victim by the perpetrator. It is characterized by a pattern of control, coercion, and assaults that an adult or an adolescent, most frequently male, uses to dominate or force compliance from a partner or spouse. (Helton, McFarlane, & Anderson, 1987).

Studies report that 7% (Helton, et al., 1987; McGrath, et al., 1991) to 17% (McFarlane, et al., 1992; Gazmararian, et al., 1996; Parker, et al., 1993) of pregnant women are currently in abusive relationships, and 21%-30% (Helton, et al., 1987) of all women have been abused at some point. Detailed personal interviews and interviews done later in pregnancy show even higher prevalence rates of such abuse (Petersen, et al., 1997). During pregnancy, physical assault is more likely to begin or escalate (DHHS Publication PHS 91-500212). A review of the literature shows clearly what the physical and emotional effects are on the pregnant woman and the neonate. Because the unborn child experiences everything the mother experiences, i.e. yelling voices, and physical and emotional trauma, he or she will be affected on every level-physiologically and psychologically. These data suggest that the majority of children of abused mothers will exhibit higher than normal levels of emotional disturbance or aggressive behavior.


Battering relationships start out magically. The abuser-to-be is romantic, thoughtful, and attentive. For the first several months or year, he is like a dream come true-whatever the woman has been looking for in a partner. Abusive behavior starts slowly, so that a woman's belief about her partner formed in these early months is not easily confronted. Abusers begin the mistreatment with sleep deprivation, interruption of eating patterns, complaints about the victim's worthlessness and faults, isolation from family and friends, and control over her finances. The perpetrator will have terrorizing rages that can erupt at any moment without warning. He may threaten the things she loves or destroy them. After a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse has been established and accepted by the victim, physical assault begins to occur. Women may be hit, slapped, punched, kicked, burned or injured with knives and guns. Sexual abuse begins after physical abuse. The women is forced to participate in sexual acts that she objects to, which further her feelings of shame and degradation (Brown, 1997). Sexual abuse is almost always accompanied by physical abuse. In the first study to make this association, sexual abuse is highly correlated with a risk of homicide or being killed by the abuser (McFarlane, 1998).

Pregnant women who are abused before pregnancy are likely to continue to be abused during the pregnancy. In fact, of women assaulted during pregnancy, 21%-33% report an increase in violence during that period (Campbell, et al., 1992; Stewart & Cecutti, 1993; etc.). Only a small minority of women, 3% reported a decrease in physical violence during the pregnancy (Amaro, et al. …

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