“I think part of what is so difficult, and has historically been so difficult, is for victims of domestic violence to communicate how afraid they are and how violent this person has been when no one’s watching....I think we have a tendency as a society as a whole to minimize this type of violence when we should be responding with a heightened level of concern...
Reproductive coercion is the term used to describe behaviors that are used by an abuser to control a woman’s reproductive health and options.
Reproductive coercion covers a wide variety of behaviors; the common theme is the use of the abused woman's reproductive health as a means of gaining power and control.
- Sabotaging your birth control. He may poke holes in condoms, hide or tamper with your pills, or pressure you into sex without protection. He may lie and say he’s had a vasectomy, so there is no need to use other contraception, or he may prevent you from accessing emergency contraception when you need it.
- Force you to continue an unwanted pregnancy. Many abusers use this tactic to continue maintaining their control in a woman's life. Some women have described how every time they thought about getting ready to leave, their abusers would get them pregnant, and they would feel they had no options but to stay.
- Prevent you from choosing whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Some abusers may try to force you to have an abortion when you don’t want one; conversely, others might pressure you into terminating a pregnancy, regardless of your desires.
- Infecting you with a sexually transmitted infection. Abusers frequently engage in sex outside of the relationship, and can expose you and other sexual partners to STIs and HIV/AIDS—especially if he refuses to use condoms consistently.
- Sexually abusing or assaulting you. Sexual violence is common in abusive relationships, and can range from sexual coercion—pressuring you to engage in sexual activities with which you are not comfortable—to rape.
If any of this sounds familiar, connect with a domestic violence advocate to talk about a safety plan. Consider also telling your health care provider. They may be able to help you think about methods of birth control that would be undetectable to your abuser—helping ensure that you remain in control of your own reproductive health.
Abuse During Pregnancy
Pregnant women in abusive relationships face particular risks. Homicide is the second leading cause of traumatic death for pregnant and recently pregnant women in the United States1. Violence during pregnancy has serious health implications. According to Futures Without Violence:
Women experiencing abuse in the year prior to and/or during a recent pregnancy are 40 to 60 percent more likely than non-abused women to report high-blood pressure, vaginal bleeding, severe nausea, kidney or urinary tract infections and hospitalization during pregnancy and are 37 percent more likely to deliver preterm. Children born to abused mothers are 17 percent more likely to be born underweight and more than 30 percent more likely than other children to require intensive care upon birth.2
Fortunately, there is growing awareness around the intersection between reproductive health and relationship violence, and of the particular ways in which women’s health is used by abusers to maintain power and control.
At the national and state levels, violence prevention organizations and family planning agencies are raising awareness of this issue, and are incorporating new safety-planning practices to address reproductive coercion. As one example, MCEDV worked with Spruce Run, the local domestic violence resource center located in Penobscot County, to create training materials that address reproductive coercion from the domestic violence perspective.
1Chang J, Berg C, Saltzman L, Herndon J. 2005. Homicide: A Leading Cause of Injury Deaths Among Pregnant and Postpartum Women in the United States, 1991-1999. American Journal of Public Health. 95(3): 471-477.
2 Silverman, JG, Decker, MR, Reed, E, Raj, A. Intimate Partner Violence Victimization Prior to and During Pregnancy Among Women Residing in 26 U.S. States: Associations with Maternal and Neonatal Health. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2006; 195(1): 140-148.