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Dr. Maeve Wallace will never forget the day she learned that homicide is a leading cause of death among pregnant women in the United States. It was a shock because we often celebrate pregnancy and newborn babies as such happy times in people’s lives. Since then, Dr. Wallace, a reproductive epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, has studied violence against pregnant and postpartum women. Her goal is to increase awareness and find ways to prevent it.
Her most recent research shows the large role that firearm violence plays in the deaths of pregnant and recently pregnant women. It is also among the first studies to receive federal funding since Congress lifted the restriction on funding for gun safety research last year. “Because there has historically been no federal funding for public health research on firearms, there is so much still unknown about how gun violence impacts population health and, most importantly, how to prevent it,” Dr. Maeve Wallace expressed. “I’m hopeful that with the restriction lifted, substantially more resources will be dedicated to research and interventions that ensure the health and safety of everyone in our country.”
Learn more about Dr. Wallace’s research in her own words:
Prohibiting firearm possession alone is not as effective as coupling it with measures to enforce it.
Most maternal homicides—women killed during pregnancy or up to a year after they have given birth—are committed by an intimate partner and involve a gun. With my “Firearm Relinquishment Laws Associated with Substantial Reduction in Homicide of Pregnant and Postpartum Women” study, I wanted to see how state laws that prohibit possession of firearms by persons involved in domestic violence might result in fewer maternal homicides. Previous research showed that these laws can reduce intimate partner homicide among all women, but we wanted to study the maternal population specifically, given that pregnancy and postpartum are times when women are most likely to be killed.
We found that state laws that prohibit possession of firearms by persons convicted of misdemeanors and require the transfer of any firearms in the person’s possession are one effective way to prevent maternal homicides. States that had only a law that prohibits owning a gun, but no accompanying law requiring that guns in possession be transferred or provisions for enforcing dispossession of firearms, did not experience later declines in maternal homicide.
In some states these laws are vague, and in others, they include detailed legal provisions. Comprehensive laws include details like directions on whom the respondent is to transfer the firearm to (e.g., law enforcement agencies or gun dealers), time limits for transfer, requirements for proof of transfer, and penalties for those who don’t comply, among terms and stipulations. Having a system of accountability for removal of firearms from prohibited people is what is so important for actually preventing gun homicide committed by domestic partners.
Exploring the root causes of domestic violence is an important component of this research.
While removing guns from persons involved with domestic violence has proven to be an effective way of preventing maternal homicide, it does not solve the bigger problem, which is the violence itself. Upcoming research will explore root causes of domestic violence, and how we can develop programs and policies that guarantee all persons have equal access to essential needs—power and resources, education and employment, healthy and vibrant neighborhoods—in order to prevent violence and support happy, healthy, and thriving families.
Community partners are critical in identifying pregnant and recently pregnant women who may be at risk for gun violence.
My research on violence during pregnancy has supported community partners in their efforts to provide domestic violence screening and referral training programs and materials to health care personnel who may come in contact with women during or after pregnancy, like OB/GYNs, midwives, and pediatricians. During and after pregnancy are times when women who might not otherwise be in contact with various social and economic services are being regularly seen for prenatal care. It represents an important window of opportunity to identify a person who may be experiencing violence and refer them to needed resources and support. I also work with community partners that provide direct services to survivors of violence and have been helping them develop additional support for pregnant and recently pregnant women given their heightened risk.
My research has also helped the state health department establish a special review board to review circumstances surrounding every victim of maternal homicide occurring in Louisiana. Just like our maternal mortality review board, their goal is to make recommendations at community, systems, and policy levels in order to prevent future deaths. I am dedicated to continuing this work. It is my hope that by increasing awareness of this issue greater dedication of effort and resources towards the implementation of programming and policies that are known to prevent violence and support maternal health will follow.
About Dr. Wallace
Maeve Wallace is a reproductive epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Her research interests focus on the social, structural, and policy determinants of maternal and child health and health inequities in the United States.