The right to determine what happens to our own physical selves has everything to do with our safety and wellbeing. Attacks on bodily autonomy are central to the issue of domestic violence. The behavior of those who commit domestic abuse is rooted in the belief that they have the right to make decisions about every facet of their partners’ lives, including their bodies.
Survivors tell us that their abusers, using a wide range of coercive tactics, dictate what they wear, when and what they eat, where they go, who they see, when they sleep, and whether they can hold their children in their arms. They tell us they are not allowed to say “no” to sex, and when they do they are assaulted. They tell us they are grabbed, touched, hit, kicked, stroked and held in ways they do not want, and which they are unable to repel. In short, abusive people systematically work to strip survivors of their autonomy and their ability to make choices for themselves without risk of retribution.
Often, abusers focus on their partners’ reproductive health as a means of maintaining control over their partners’ lives. This is called reproductive coercion, and it particularly—though not exclusively—impacts women, for whom a pregnancy can make the difference between breaking free of and being connected to their abusers forever, through shared parenting if not through the relationship.
Women tell us about preparing to end the relationship, having painstakingly put together plans for starting over—a place to go, some income, childcare and transportation—when they realize they are pregnant. Maybe he tampered with her pills, or maybe he poked holes in the condoms, or maybe he raped her. No matter the tactic, with a new baby all of those carefully laid plans are often rendered unworkable. Some women tell us that this happened to them more than once: “It’s like he always knew, just when I was getting ready to go.”
Others tell us about how their abusers kept them from ending a pregnancy, sometimes physically keeping them from going to a clinic for an abortion, sometimes showing behavior change that lasted only until the baby was born. And still others tell us about how their partners supported them, even encouraged them, to get an abortion—and then later used the knowledge of the procedure as a weapon, blackmailing and shaming them with it. Abusers are often perfectly willing to capitalize on the social stigma associated with abortion, as doing so allows them to isolate their partners even further.
Reproductive freedom matters for survivors of domestic violence. It matters because it is an essential part of safety planning around reproductive coercion. It matters because the ability to become pregnant leaves women vulnerable to abusers in a very specific set of ways, and women need to be able to manage that vulnerability in whatever way works best for them.
Reproductive freedom also matters because the belief that anyone other than a woman herself has the right to control what happens to her body is a key part of the culture than condones abuse in the first place. At the core, it is an abuser’s belief that his rights take precedence over hers that drives his behavior, and his belief has been culturally supported for millennia, in laws that treated women and children as property and gave men the final say over their lives.
In just one example, it was only in 1985 that raping one’s spouse was finally outlawed in Maine. Before that, our laws maintained that a husband’s right to his wife’s body was absolute; that once she was married, she had given up her right to choose when and if to engage in sexual activity. But by 1985, our understanding had evolved. We saw that women have the right to decide for ourselves what happens to our bodies—and that right must be recognized and upheld under the law.
The same understanding needs to be applied to our discussions around reproductive freedom.
Access to a full range of reproductive health care, including abortion, not only helps survivors counteract the abusive tactics used by their partners, but it sends a message of accountability to abusers, as well. Because a culture that insists that only a woman can decide what happens to her body is one that will be able to stand beside survivors and affirm, “Your body is yours, and no one else’s, and we will support you in keeping it that way.”