When Your Partner Tries to Control Your Reproductive Choices

Reproductive coercion isn't widely recognized as domestic violence. In California, lawmakers are debating changing that.

[PHOTO: Woman sitting on couch looking concerned]
One study found 15 percent of women experiencing physical violence from a male partner also reported birth control sabotage. Shutterstock

In a Saturday Night Live sketch in 2018, Pete Davidson joked about switching out his then-fiancee Ariana Grande’s birth control with Tic Tacs, to uproarious laughter from the studio audience. But for all the tongue-in-cheek cultural jokes about poking holes in condoms or throwing away a partner’s birth control to coerce them to stay in a relationship, this behavior is rarely recognized for what it is: a prevalent act of abuse with violent ramifications for women and pregnant-capable individuals that can last a lifetime.

Birth control sabotage is just one form of reproductive coercion; it also includes “excessively pressuring the other party to become pregnant, deliberately interfering with access to reproductive health information, or using coercive tactics to control pregnancy outcomes,” said Jane Stoever, a law professor and director of the University of California, Irvine Domestic Violence Clinic and the university’s Initiative to End Family Violence. Stoever has often counseled survivors of domestic violence who don’t even realize they experienced sexual assault—because it was perpetrated by a long-term partner—much less that domestic violence includes their partner sabotaging access to birth control. Because society doesn’t often recognize this sort of reproductive coercion as abusive, survivors frequently don’t either.

That’s why SB 374, a first-of-its-kind bill that California state Sen. Dave Min—who is also Stoever’s husband—recently filed, is so important. The bill would include reproductive coercion in California’s statutory definition of domestic violence, allowing victims to get a restraining order against their abuser. Stoever’s research and advocacy efforts helped shape and inspire Min’s bill, which is currently being considered in the state senate.

But other than this recent legislative effort, acts of reproductive coercion aren’t widely recognized as domestic violence, even though forcing a person to carry an unwanted pregnancy can have long-term, devastating consequences. A person who is denied abortion care is four times more likely to experience poverty, and more likely to stay in an abusive relationship. Victims of reproductive coercion whose partners refuse to use a condom, or who remove the condom without their knowledge and consent, are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections.

“We have a societal conception of sexual violence as stranger violence, and it’s hard to comprehend when someone who says they love you is also someone who denies your autonomy and sexually violates you.”
– Jane Stoever, University of California, Irvine

Stoever has found the phenomenon of an abusive partner controlling their victim’s access to contraception or abortion care is unsettlingly common. One study found 15 percent of women experiencing physical violence from a male partner also reported birth control sabotage. And according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one quarter of adolescent girls have reported that their abusive male partners had attempted to nonconsensually impregnate them by interfering with their contraception. Among adolescent mothers on public assistance who experienced intimate partner violence, 66 percent also reported experiencing birth control sabotage by an abusive partner.

Yet legal protections and resources for victims of reproductive coercion are virtually nonexistent. These acts are often underreported, as many victims may not realize their partner’s actions constitute domestic violence.

“Reproductive coercion is typically not the only type of abuse experienced in a relationship in which intimate partner violence is present, and it can be challenging to reveal,” Stoever said. “Naming a problem is often the first step in addressing it. Naming the behavior enables and empowers survivors to identify what they have experienced as abuse.”

According to Stoever, formally adding reproductive coercion to legal definitions of domestic violence can give victims the ability to seek justice and legal recourse, and ensure judges recognize the severity of these acts.

“We have a societal conception of sexual violence as stranger violence, and it’s hard to comprehend when someone who says they love you is also someone who denies your autonomy and sexually violates you,” Stoever said. While acts of reproductive coercion like “stealthing,” a form of rape in which a sexual partner nonconsensually removes the condom during sex, can be perpetrated by strangers, other acts of reproductive coercion like birth control sabotage are often perpetrated by long-term romantic partners.

Reproductive coercion is less likely to be seen as violent in a rape culture that’s conditioned us to equate rapists and violent sexual partners with strangers—despite the fact that perpetrators of sexual violence are more likely to be people we know. As a result, reproductive coercion is often joked about and made light of in popular culture.

In addition, the constant barrage of anti-abortion legislation that bans, severely restricts or stigmatizes reproductive health care like abortion and birth control normalizes intimate partner violence. When state and federal lawmakers routinely attempt to control the bodies, lives, and reproductive health options of women and pregnant-capable people, this coercive behavior becomes culturally acceptable.

Recognizing reproductive coercion as a form of domestic violence not only helps victims seek legal protection, but can also prevent it from happening. One 2012 study found that clinic-based interventions—in which patients seeking contraception are asked whether their partner or someone in their home might interfere with their birth control, or whether their partner has ever forced them to do something sexually—can reduce pregnancy coercion by 71 percent among women experiencing intimate partner violence. Drawing clear connections between domestic violence and reproductive coercion, especially in clinical settings where someone is seeking reproductive health care, is crucial to prevent reproductive coercion, help victims identify the abuse they’re facing, and ensure they can safely get support.

The grim reality is that current available data on the prevalence of reproductive coercion might be just the tip of the iceberg. To truly begin to understand the scale of this invisible crisis and meaningfully support victims, we have to name and formally recognize reproductive coercion as abuse. That means updating our legal and cultural definitions of domestic violence.