With the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, much of the news coverage has focused on whether or not states with so-called “trigger” laws outlawing abortion make exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Such exceptions have played a prominent role in abortion access arguments since the 1950s.
Unfortunately, a focus on rape and incident makes abortion access seem like an issue after victimization and a matter specific to sexual violence rather than other forms of intimate abuse. However, research shows that reproductive coercion is tangled up with intimate abuse, including ongoing and future victimization, making reproductive autonomy a central issue in work to end violence against women. Let’s take a look.
Reproductive Coercion and Links to Intimate Violence
Reproductive coercion refers to behavior “that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman, with regard to reproductive health.” In a 2018 systematic review, Grace and Anderson identified three interconnected forms of reproductive coercion: birth control sabotage, pregnancy coercion (threatening or pressing a partner to get pregnant), and abortion coercion (threatening or pressing a partner to get or not get an abortion) ).
Reproductive coercion begins as early as adolescence. For example, McCauley and colleagues found that more than 1 in 10 sexually active girls (age 14-19) seeking care through school health clinics reported recent reproductive coercion by dating partners. Nearly 1 in 5 reported physical or sexual relationship abuse.
In adulthood, estimates suggest that up to 1 in 5 women experience reproductive coercion. Women marginalized by race/ethnicity, education, economic status, and sexuality are at higher risk of reproductive coercion than peers. In turn, reproductive coercion is linked to factors that can impact unintended pregnancy, such as not having health insurance. At least one study documented that women seeking care at abortion facilities reported more reproductive coercion than those seeking care through facilities that provided family planning services.
Since the 1990s, many cross-sectional studies have documented links between reproductive coercion and intimate partner abuse, including physical as well as sexual victimization. This means that reproductive coercion happens in the context of ongoing abusive relationships for many women with serious health consequences. For example, reproductive coercion is linked with problems ranging from sexually transmitted infections to psychological distress, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Intimate violence that continues through pregnancy as well as after the baby is born has consequences for maternal and neonatal care as well as child development.
Adding to this already fraught situation, researchers have more recently pointed out that reproductive coercion may portend future intimate violence.
This isn’t surprising. Consider, for example, that men who report removing condoms without their partners’ consent also endorse more severe sexual aggression and greater hostility to women compared to their peers. Greater hostility towards women is linked with violence against them.
Ending Violence Against Women Has to Include Reproductive Autonomy
The overturning of Roe v. Wade means that many state governments are getting into the business of reproductive coercion—in this case, forcing people to stay pregnant—a tactic understood as abuse when carried out by an intimate partner.
“Restricting access to reproductive health care–whether in the context of an intimate relationship, in a family system, or by the federal government—is reproductive coercion—a form of sexual violence. Full stop,” according to Heather McCauley, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University and expert in reproductive coercion. “Our research has demonstrated that reproductive coercion is largely about exerting power over and taking control of pregnant people’s bodies, rather than intentions regarding pregnancy or parenthood.”
The research on reproductive coercion paints a bleak picture for a post-Roe future: Reproductive coercion has far-reaching impacts on women’s health and safety, whether measured in terms of physical and psychological health or risk for ongoing and future victimization.
Abortion bans also offer abusive partners new tools to control their victims, as has been the case with other government policies. For example, immigrant women have recounted abusive partners making deportation threats to control them. With abortion bans, abusers can more easily coerce and control their partners by interfering with travel to other states to access abortion or threatening to report women to authorities.
Given the links between reproductive coercion and intimate violence, abortion bans promise to worsen the awful problem of violence against women in the United States. As McCauley put it: “Overturning Roe v. Wade enshrines sexual violence into the fabric of our society and emboldens abusive partners to continue doing harm.”
A woman is victimized by a current or former intimate partner, and another is sexually assaulted, every 90 seconds. Intimate violence harms victims and communities, diminishing safety, opportunity, health, and dignity. This means that addressing violence against women is in all of our self-interests, as I describe in Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women,
Ending violence against women requires the ways that it is tangled up with the issues that stoke our greatest passions—including abortion. This means that work to ensure women’s access to reproductive healthcare and autonomy to make health decisions has also to address violence against women. For example, screening for and intervening to stop reproductive coercion and intimate partner abuse.
And vice versa: Efforts to end violence against women have to also include work to ensure women’s healthcare autonomy, including decisions about pregnancy and abortion. After all, abortion is essential healthcare, and access is a public health issue. As the American Psychological Association pointed out, denying women access to abortion promises to “exacerbate the mental health crisis America is already experiencing” as well as worsening other inequities.
Source: Anne P. DePrince
We each have a stake in ending violence against women. This means we also have a stake in ensuring women’s reproductive autonomy. Learning from other social movements, change is possible, but it will take each of us our shared interest in working together.