Reproductive Coercion – exerting power and control in intimate choices

Soon after coming to MSP for help, Jane was surprised to learn that she was in the earliest stages of pregnancy. She had diligently taken birth control pills to avoid pregnancy in part because she endured physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her boyfriend. But Jane was further shocked when she discovered that her boyfriend already knew that she was pregnant – before she had told him or anyone else. She found out her pills had been tampered with – her abuser had sabotaged her attempts to avoid pregnancy – controlling her body in the most invasive way.

Reproductive coercion is a form of domestic violence through which an abuser intentionally interferes with a partner’s reproductive health or choices in order to maintain power and control within a relationship. It can include attempts to impregnate a partner against her will, coercing a partner to have unprotected sex, or interference with methods of contraception.[1] Despite many survivors of DV reporting their experience of this form of abuse, the term is not widely understood.

As a form of domestic (or intimate partner) violence, reproductive coercion has serious outcomes for our clients. Unintended pregnancy can derail life choices, and create financial and emotional dependency on an abusive partner. And, as grim statistics demonstrate, pregnancy in the context of an abusive relationship can be deadly – homicide is the second leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths[2] – women with unintended pregnancies are up to 4 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women with intended pregnancies.[3]

So, what can be done?

Knowledgeable healthcare providers can provide support and safe alternatives to patients who are concerned about reproductive coercion. Contraceptive counseling can include considering options for less obvious or detectable methods. Pre-natal visits can include discussion of intimate partner violence and available resources – such as the legal and supportive services provided by MSP.

The ability to make your own informed decisions about reproduction is a fundamental right – the right to reproductive justice. At MSP, we believe that reproductive coercion is unacceptable, and through comprehensive services, advocacy, and community education, we support survivors and their ability to make their own decisions over their bodies.

 

[1] The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee Opinion Number 554, February 2013 (reaffirmed 2019)

[2] Chang J, Berg CJ, Saltzman LE, Herndon J. Homicide: a leading cause of injury deaths among pregnant and postpartum women in the United States, 1991–1999. Am J Public Health 2005;95:471–7.

[3] Gazmararian JA, Adams MM, Saltzman LE, Johnson CH, Bruce FC, Marks JS, et al. The relationship between pregnancy intendedness and physical violence in mothers of newborns. The PRAMS Working Group. Obstet Gynecol 1995;85:1031–8