Sean Philpott, MSB’06, PhD,
acting director of the Center for Bioethics, is a regular commentator for WAMC
Northeast Public Radio. His most recent segment (below), aired on February 21st.
It addresses domestic abuse, given the news that famed Olympian and
Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was arraigned on charges of murder in a South
African court of law.
A public health researcher and
ethicist by training, Dr. Philpott is also chair of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, which reviews all research
involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes. He
can be heard every other Thursday afternoon on WAMC. For a list of channel
frequencies and past segments recorded by Dr. Philpott, visit: www.wamc.org.
Protecting the Victims of Domestic
Last Friday, famed Olympian and Paralympian Oscar Pistorius
was arraigned on charges of murder in a South African court of law. Nicknamed
the 'Blade Runner' after the carbon fiber blades that this double-amputee uses
to run, Mr. Pistorius is accused of fatally shooting his 30-year-old girlfriend
Ms. Steenkamp's death may have been the result of a tragic
accident. Home invasions are common in South Africa, and Oscar may have
mistaken her for an intruder.
Sadly, it is also possible (even likely) that Reeva's death
is the result of a premediated or passionate act of violence. According to
preliminary reports, the police in South Africa have been called to Mr.
Pistorius' house on more than one occasion to deal with domestic abuse
Also known as intimate partner violence, domestic violence
is sadly commonplace in the US and around the world. It can take several forms,
from physical and sexual assault to emotional and verbal abuse. Victims may
also be subject to more passive or covert forms of abuse, such as neglect or
More often than not, women are the primary victims. A recent
survey of 16,000 people by the US Department of Justice found that nearly a
quarter of women have been abused by a spouse or partner. The number of
American women who are the victims of domestic violence is likely far greater,
as the survey asked only about physical or sexual assault. It did not examine
some of the more insidious forms of intimate partner violence like verbal,
emotion and psychological abuse.
This is not to say that men cannot be victims of domestic
violence as well. In the same Justice Department survey, over 7% of men
reported a history of abuse. However, women are far more likely to be harmed or
killed as a result of domestic violence. Data are spotty, but domestic violence
appears to the leading cause of injury among women aged 15 to 45. It is
estimated that 1,000 to 1,600 American women die each year from injuries
sustained at the hands of an abuser. Many suicides may also be the result of
domestic abuse; in one study of women who attempted suicide, researchers found
that nearly a third reported a history of intimate partner violence.
Rates of domestic violence also differ by race and
ethnicity. In the African-American community, for example, intimate partner
violence occurs at a rate that is 35% higher overall. The statistics for Native
American women are even more disturbing. Sixty percent of American Indian and
Alaska Native women will be physically assaulted in their lifetime. Thirty-five
percent will be raped.
The consequences of domestic violence are far reaching. In
addition to the lives lost to domestic violence, it costs the American health
care system nearly $5 billion a year to treat injuries sustained as a result of
abuse. Economic productivity also suffers, with over two million workdays lost
when abuse victims must take sick leave to recuperate. Many abuse victims lose
their jobs and some even lose their homes as a result; research suggests that
domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for half of the homeless
women in the United States.
Combating domestic violence has proven to be difficult, in
part because victims are often reluctant to press charges or to seek medical
care. Even when they do, law enforcement agencies and health care providers may
be loathe to interfere. For too long, domestic abuse has been viewed as a
private matter to be handled within the family.
That is changing, albeit slowly. While police have been
reluctant to intervene in domestic disputes in the past, for example, nearly
half of US states now have policies that mandate arrest of the perpetrators of
domestic abuse, regardless of whether or not a police officer witnessed the
crime; the remaining 26 states that lack such laws will hopefully pass them
soon. More and more medical schools are also training doctors and nurses
recognize and address domestic abuse in their patients.
But while progress is being made at the state level, a
coordinated federal response to the domestic violence epidemic is somewhat
lacking. One key piece of federal legislation is the Violence Against Women
Act, signed into law by then President Bill Clinton in 1994. The Act provides
for federal investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It
also provides for a coordinated community response to domestic abuse via grant
funding and support offered by the federal Office on Violence Against Women,
including money to help the states implement mandatory arrest policies.
In recent years, however, some in Congress have tried to gut
the law or have refused to reauthorize it. Some legislators object to
provisions that would extend the Act's protections to same-sex couples or
undocumented workers. Others reject the inclusion of American Indians living in
reservations, which would give tribal authorities jurisdiction over crimes
involving non-native Americans on tribal lands. These objections come despite
the fact that intimate partner violence is common among these three groups.
Whatever the root cause for these objections -- legal
concerns about the adequacy of tribal courts or ideological opposition to
protecting the health and well being of lesbians and illegal immigrants --
these politicians are doing themselves and the American public a grave disservice.
It's time to renew the Violence Against Women Act and extend its protections to
all. Domestic violence is a problem that affects us all. All victims, be they
gay or straight, white or Native American, a US born citizen or an undocumented
worker, deserve the full protection and support of the government.