High-quality, highly credible, U.S. nationally representative injury surveys indicate that domestic violence is far from the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44, or to women generally. Nonetheless, public discourse has successfully rationalized the many variants of the claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. Common standards of public reasoning — assessments of interests, credibility, representativeness, etc. — have not been applied to highly damaging claims directly related to criminal acts. Instead, these false claims have been rationalized in a variety of ways.
False claims about domestic violence have been rationalized by claiming under-reporting. An influential claim about domestic violence being the leading cause of injury to women concerned injuries prompting visits to hospital emergency departments. Extensive public investment exists in emergency services for treating injuries and in nationally representative surveys for measuring the incidence of such injuries. Domestic violence being the leading cause of women’s injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments would imply massive under-reporting of such injuries. Under common standards of reasoning, such a claim would require weighty evidence. No weighty evidence supports massive under-reporting of domestic-violence injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments.
False claims about domestic violence have been rationalized by re-description. For example, the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44, as measured by U.S. national injury surveys, is unintentional falls. One might claim that a large share of what injury surveys record as women’s injuries from accidental falls are actually domestic violence against women: Humpty Dumpty was pushed. However, a cause category “Injury Undetermined Whether Accidentally or Purposely Inflicted” was explicitly included in one such survey. That cause category amounted to only 1% and 5% as many injury visits as accidental falls in 1992 and 2001, respectively. In 2001, women and men ages 15 to 44 suffered 1.2 million and 1.4 million emergency-department visits, respectively, from accidental falls. Under common standards of reasoning, weighty evidence would be necessary to claim that a large share of domestic violence injuries to women are misreported as accidental falls and that the true incidence of unintentional falls is much less for women than for men. No such weighty evidence has supported rationalizations that a large share of women’s, but not men’s, accidental falls resulted from them being pushed, i.e. domestic violence.
False claims about domestic violence have been rationalized through pettifoggery. With sufficiently fine subdivisions of all other causes of injury, any given cause of injury can be made the leading cause of injury. A more subtle variation is to call domestic violence “a leading cause of injury” or “one of the leading causes of injury” and to define implicitly the number of leading causes to be sufficiently large so as to include domestic violence. Alternatively, one can define injury in such a way that good evidence isn’t available to measure alternate causes of injury. Shifting the definition of injures to a broader class of injuries than serious physical injuries increases the number of injuries from domestic violence and from all other causes. That can create desired confusion about comparative numbers. Broader categories of injuries are more difficult to measure and thus favor arbitrary claims. Shifting the definition of injury to encompass psychological harm helps to create measurement difficulties and to advance arbitrary claims. For example, here’s a sweeping, practically unfalsifiable claim: “Domestic violence affects more people than any other health-care problem in the United States.”^ For the most part, such pettifoggery has not been necessary. Without good reason, public discourse has widely supported the claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women.
Good reason is unlikely to overcome the claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. From 1988 to 1997, instances of that claim (including variants ) have been asserted as true at least 780 times in U.S. Congressional records, federal and state judicial opinions, law journal articles, and newspaper articles. Nonetheless, in 1998, a psychotherapist working domestic-violence cases wrote in the law journal Arizona Attorney:
While no one would argue that the statistics show that domestic violence is one of the leading causes of injury among women, there is polarization in the field regarding what constitutes domestic violence, its causes, and appropriate treatment to end that violence.^
That statement’s introductory clause denies a large public record of just such claims. The article making that statement addressed domestic violence in terms of power and control. The claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women has remained prevalent in public discourse. That’s an astonishing example of the power and control of thinly veiled anti-male gender animus.