The 1992 Surgeon General’s statement on domestic violence referred to injuries treated in hospital emergency departments. Injuries treated in hospital emergency departments typically are acute physical injuries. The incidence and causes of such injuries are relatively amendable to objective analysis. Attempts to rationalize the Surgeon General’s statement have commonly changed the definition of injury.
Domestic violence can be defined in a variety of ways and associated with a variety of injuries other than acute physical injuries. Acts criminalized are widely considered to be acts that cause serious harm. Criminal acts, such as an unjustified attempt to cause a person serious physical harm, may not actually cause such harm. Hence if women receive more serious injuries from heterosexual domestic violence than men do, that doesn’t imply that men are more criminally culpable for such domestic violence than women are.
Domestic violence can also cause personal psychological harm. That’s a serious injury that can lead to debilitating depression and suicide. Yet a person feeling psychological hurt doesn’t necessarily imply the moral or criminal culpability of another. One person’s feeling of harm may have little relation to another person’s actions.
Harms from domestic violence are not just personal harms. Crime and fear of crime are general social problems. Domestic violence and fear of domestic violence are important components of crime and fear of crime. Fear of domestic violence may deter persons from entering into intimate relations. Widespread false claims of domestic violence can function in the same way.
The vicious scholarly battle about domestic violence highlights the importance of objective, credible injury data collected for broad public purposes. Such data are available through the NHAMCS and NEISS. These well-established, nationally representative surveys measure injuries through injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments. That is the definition of injury to which the 1992 Surgeon General’s statement referred. It’s the best definition of injury to use for reasoned, public discussion of domestic violence.