Reproductive Coercion: A Widespread Form of Domestic Violence Supported by Anti-Choice Legislation

A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. And anti-choicers are helping them maintain control.

black and white photo of sad woman in corner
A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. And anti-choicers are helping them maintain control. sad young woman via Shutterstock

As Martha Kempner recently reported here at Rewire, Roman Polanski—admitted rapist and all-around creep—doesn’t like it when women can control their own fertility. “I think that the Pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, ‘masculinizing’ her,” he said, firmly characterizing the ability to control your own body as a male-only privilege. “I think that it chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.” Polanski, who pled guilty to plying a 13-year-old with alcohol in order to make it easier to forcibly penetrate her, thinks that the way to preserve “romance” is to keep women in a state of fear of pregnancy at male whims.

Sadly, as research is beginning to bear out, this violent man’s negative attitudes toward female reproductive autonomy are not merely the eccentricities of an aging misogynist. A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. It’s called “reproductive coercion,” and it’s way more common that was previously thought, as Kat Stoeffel reports for The Cut.

Stoeffel references a recent study by Dr. Lindsay Clark of the Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where 641 women who received routine care were asked if they had been threatened or bullied by their partners into getting pregnant or had even had their partners mess with their contraception, by hiding pills or poking holes in condoms. A shocking 16 percent had experienced such abuse, a number which reflects other, still preliminary studies that show a widespread problem of men trying to force pregnancy on unwilling partners. The problem is both so common and so hidden that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists is recommending that doctors screen for reproductive coercion in addition to more traditional screening for domestic violence.

Why do men who engage in reproductive coercion do such a thing? Don’t they know that if they successfully force their partners to give birth, they too will be responsible for the baby that results? The behavior is definitely not rational if the goal is a harmonious, happy sex and family life. But domestic abusers don’t want a harmonious, happy life. On the contrary, most of them are perfectly happy, often downright eager, to sacrifice happiness and peace in order to get the buzz of feeling powerful and in control, specifically in control of their female partners. Being so in control that you control her body functions is the ultimate form of control.

In fact, this need to feel in control is so overwhelming for some abusive men that they will actually force women to get pregnant and then try to force them to abort. In a 2010 piece for The Nation on reproductive coercion, Lynn Harris told the story of a young woman in an abusive relationship whose boyfriend-captor would hide her birth control pills. When she inevitably got pregnant, he tried to beat her into submitting to an abortion. When she refused, he kicked her in the stomach and even pushed her down the stairs in an attempt to induce a miscarriage. Despite the abuse, the woman remained pregnant, and she eventually escaped the relationship with her young son.

In most cases, however, the abuser sees forced childbirth as a way to tie his victim to him, making it harder for her to leave and giving him that desperately desired control. As Harris wrote in another piece summarizing the “red flags” of reproductive control, one thing to look out for is men who talk about making babies as a way for women to “prove” their love, claim contraception is only used by cheaters, or see conceiving as a demonstration of their power and virility. These are abusive men who are more interesting in forcing people into relationships with them than they are in being good, loving partners.

Then there’s the most common kind of reproductive coercion: Guys who slip off condoms or refuse to wear them simply because they get a thrill out of getting one over on their partner. It’s a sort of sexual assault lite, where he can get the buzz off dominating his partner sexually without her consent without running the risk of getting the police involved.

We tend to think of anti-choice antics as a separate issue from violence against women, except when anti-choice politicians slip up on occasion and say something that minimizes rape. Considering this small but growing body of research, we really should take a harder look at the connections between abuse of women and reproductive control. The abuser who hides the birth control pills, the sleaze who slips off the condom, the anti-choice protester yelling invective at women seeking abortions, and the politician writing laws to make it harder to get contraception and abortion are all pieces of the same puzzle. All of them want to take away a woman’s basic right to self-determination, and all of them do it because they subscribe to an ideology that paints men as the natural dominators and even owners of women.

Indeed, looking over the extensive use of reproductive coercion by abusive men, it’s hard to deny that the best friend of a woman-beater is the anti-choice politician. Slip off the condom during sex to force her to get pregnant? Thanks to anti-choice lobbying, she’s going to have a hard time getting emergency contraception to thwart your plans. Keep hiding her birth control pills so that she has to go explain to her doctor why she needs more? Luckily for abusers, anti-choicers are shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics, making it both more expensive and more time-consuming for women to get that done. Successfully impregnate a woman you’re trying to trap with a baby? Thanks to anti-choicers, she may not be able to afford to travel across ten counties to the nearest clinic to get an abortion and get away from you.

Indeed, if we want to help women get out of abusive relationships, it’s increasingly becoming clear that one of the most important steps we can take is reversing the tide of anti-choice legislation.