The Hidden Link Between Domestic Violence and Abortion

Anti-choice laws have direct effects on people experiencing domestic violence, especially those seeking abortion care without their abuser’s knowledge.

[Photo: Outside view of the U.S. Supreme Court.]
As the Supreme Court reviews a case that could determine the future of abortion access, remember that anti-choice abortion restrictions have a direct impact on people who experience domestic violence. Shutterstock

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review a case that could determine the future of abortion access. Across the country, anti-choice state legislatures—including in my home state of Missouri—are banning abortion, shutting down clinics, criminalizing providers, and shaming and judging people who seek abortion care. As a survivor in this movement, these issues impact people who look like me.

I’ve worked with domestic and sexual violence organizations for nearly ten years. It’s clear to me that efforts to restrict abortion have a lot in common with domestic violence. Both are about power and control. Furthermore, anti-choice abortion restrictions have a direct impact on people who experience domestic violence.

If a pregnant person is experiencing abuse, not being able to access abortion care can put their safety in jeopardy. Between 6 percent and 22 percent of women terminate their pregnancies because they are in an abusive relationship. These women named concern over the welfare of their children as the main reason for seeking and receiving an abortion. A 2014 study published in BMC Medicine showed that women denied an abortion remain tethered to the abusive partner and at risk for continued violence, even if they leave the relationship. I worked with survivors who experienced reproductive coercion—attempts by their partner to manipulate contraception so that it fails, to force them to get pregnant, or to make them carry a pregnancy to term.

Abortion restrictions have direct and harmful effects on people in domestic violence situations, especially those seeking reproductive services without their abuser’s knowledge. Financially burdensome and medically unnecessary requirements—like making multiple trips or traveling long distances—makes obtaining abortion care difficult for those whose daily tasks, bank accounts, and access to friends and family may be controlled by an abusive partner. At domestic violence shelters, I worked with survivors who were not allowed to seek employment when they were with their abusive partner. Many had been out of the workforce for more than a decade by the time they entered a shelter or advocacy program.

These restrictions disproportionately affect women of color, who also experience intimate partner violence at higher rates. Black women, in particular, face high rates of maternal and infant mortality rates and are more likely to die from unsafe, illegal abortions. Black women have long been at the forefront to address the need for safe abortion access as part of reproductive justice for queer and transgender women of color.

While one in four women will experience severe intimate partner abuse in their lifetime, among Black women the rate of physical partner abuse increases to 41 percent. Fifty-one percent of Native women will experience physical violence from an intimate partner, and up to 55 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander women will experience intimate physical and/or sexual violence. These statistics only worsen when we consider the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, particularly bisexual women—more than 61 percent have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner—and transgender women, who are three times more likely to report sexual and financial violence than cisgender women.

However, this only includes people who report the abuse, and data points are especially scarce for women of color and LGBTQ+ communities. Threats to reveal a partner’s sexual orientation or gender identity are a barrier for LGBTQ+ survivors of abuse. Distrust for formal systems like shelters, the criminal legal system, and medical institutions—which have a long history of experimenting on Black people in the United States—can discourage people in already underserved groups from seeking services.

I worked with survivors who endured long custody battles. Survivors who did not have access to an abortion but desperately wanted to cut ties with the person who raped and impregnated them. Survivors who said the violence increased once they were pregnant. I worked with countless survivors who needed affirmation that their bodies were theirs—that what they do with their bodies should not be left to the will of anyone outside of themselves.

I worked with survivors who didn’t want to leave because of the children—they would have to find a different school or daycare. I worked with survivors who took several attempts to enter a shelter because they didn’t want to or couldn’t leave the familiarity of their own home for a communal shelter. Depending on the size of a shelter, there may only be two to four “family” rooms, with enough beds to keep a parent and up to five children. Survivors in larger cities are put on waitlists for public housing, and affordable housing for a family in need of more than two bedrooms is hard to find in any circumstance, let alone when a family is facing violence. Survivors in rural towns, meanwhile, typically have no public housing options. If the housing option is in a different city or county, survivors will be far away from family or other support systems.

And I worked with survivors who, like most parents, didn’t want to put their children in greater danger. They were aware that leaving was the most dangerous time.

The pathway toward gender justice includes ending domestic and sexual violence. This is one movement with many voices. We need lawyers, we need advocates, we need organizers. We need the voices of survivors.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But we must do the necessary work all year. It’s become clearer to me that in order to end gender-based violence, we must build bridges across our organizations, connect the dots across our causes, and address systemic barriers that ignore our basic needs. This means working in an environment where a livable wage is the standard—whether someone is single or providing for a family. It means having a choice on if, when, and how to start a family and having culturally relevant services and resources that support these decisions. It means existing in a community that supports parenting through paid parental leave, access to housing, and childcare—where providers, often Black and brown women, are paid living wages and treated with dignity.

What is good for survivors and activists is to thrive in communities where the people and places around them realize racial and gender equality through social, political, health, and economic equity. What is good for survivors is good for activists and is good for our country.