For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.
During the coronavirus pandemic, advocates have predicted a surge in domestic violence in the United States. Some worry that in addition to forcing survivors to stay in lockdown with their abusers, recent COVID-19-related abortion restrictions could lead to reproductive coercion.
In at least four cities across the country, police reports of domestic violence have actually gone down during the pandemic, when compared to the same weeks in recent years. The decline is actually a cause for concern; these stats may not reflect reality, given that many survivors do not report violence at the hands of family members to the police. Among the abusive behavior that is difficult to track is reproductive coercion—attempts to control someone’s reproductive health and decision-making as a means to maintain power over them, which typically occurs within the context of an abusive intimate relationship.
According to an analysis of 2011’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Black, Indigenous, and multiracial women are disproportionately victimized by intimate partner violence compared to their white counterparts.
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While women of color are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, they also experience reproductive control from the state. And so organizations that work across issues of reproductive justice, criminal justice reform, and immigration continue to address reproductive coercion, control, and gender-based violence more broadly. In particular, groups like Sueños Sin Fronteras, SisterSong, Sanctuary for Families, and National Bail Out are working to address the holistic needs and political interests of women of color, including incarcerated and detained women and pregnant people.
Reproductive coercion during COVID-19 lockdown
During the COVID-19 crisis, state governments have restricted abortion care, citing coronavirus precautions in order to ban or block the availability of abortion services by labeling the surgical procedure as “elective” and “nonessential.” (While most abortion bans have been lifted as states reopen and as litigation proceeds, Arkansas is requiring abortion-seekers to first get a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of the procedure.)
These onerous restrictions during a massive public health emergency made it necessary for many pregnant people to travel outside of their state to access care, risking COVID-19 exposure; otherwise, they would be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. For survivors of domestic violence sheltering in place with their abusers, the latter outcome—or other more dangerous outcomes—is far more likely than the former. Forcing people to carry unwanted pregnancies to term results in a myriad of poor health outcomes, as well as material poverty, unemployment, hunger, and compounded psychological effects.
“Reproductive coercion, lack of access to abortion care, and restrictions on women’s choice are a form of gender-based violence,” said Luba Reife, deputy director of the family law project at Sanctuary for Families, which serves and advocates for survivors of gender-based violence in New York. Reproductive control in abusive relationships can look like coerced sex without contraceptives, attempting to impregnate someone against their will, or interfering with a person’s contraceptive methods or right to obtain an abortion.
COVID-19 restrictions particularly affected survivors of intimate partner violence, Reife said, with family and criminal courts reluctant to grant orders of protection that exclude the abuser from the home they share with the survivor due to public health concerns.
With no protection from the control of their abusers and limited access to health services during the pandemic, many survivors have had little or no opportunity to access reproductive care. Remote options to seek help like telemedicine and other telehealth services can be complicated options for survivors who are trapped with their abusers.
State-sanctioned reproductive control
Denying a person’s reproductive autonomy is a form of violence and abuse—whether it’s exerted by an intimate partner or by state forces. Reproductive control is not limited to the domestic sphere; in fact, pregnant people in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers have throughout history been systematically victimized by reproductive coercion at the hands of the state. As always, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities are most at risk.
“Pregnant and detained women cannot exercise [the] right to seek an abortion,” said Laura Molinar, founder and executive director of Sueños Sin Fronteras, a community-based organization that supports immigrant, undocumented, asylum-seeking folks and their families. In recent years, the Trump administration attempted to stop unaccompanied pregnant minors in immigrant detention from obtaining abortions.
“Women are subject to inhumane conditions, poor access to medical care in unhealthy environments. Women are having stillbirths and miscarriages, complications with pregnancy in detention,” Molinar said. “There are documented accounts of them being shackled, having hands and feet shackled.”
Black, brown, Indigenous, disabled, and low-income people have historically been victim to state-sanctioned forced sterilizations and reproductive coercion.
From forced sterilizations at women’s prisons to limiting or refusing abortions, the criminal justice system has long imposed discriminatory practices of reproductive control on Black and brown people in the carceral system—practices rooted in racism. In 1991, Darlene Johnson, a Black mother of four, was forced by a judge to get a birth control device implanted into her arm for three years after pleading guilty to three counts of felony child abuse. In 2010, Kimberly Jeffrey, a Black mother who served time at the Valley State Prison in central California for a parole violation, had to advocate for herself against pressure to be sterilized while she was sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a cesarean section. Between 2006 and 2010, 148 people incarcerated at the Valley State Prison and another California state prison were illegally sterilized via tubal ligations by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
What’s being done about this?
Reproductive justice organizations have long pushed policy changes to better protect the reproductive freedom of people who are incarcerated—as well as those under lockdown during the pandemic.
Sanctuary for Families provides legal help for survivors and works with them to develop a safety plan to keep them and their children safe during and after the pandemic. Sueños Sin Fronteras’s health advocate program offers an umbrella of services to support its communities at different phases of the legal immigration process, including advocating for better health care for migrant and refugee families.
Meanwhile, Black women-led reproductive justice organizations work to address the needs of mamas of color. SisterSong, a Southern-based reproductive justice collective, provides holistic health resources and advocates for the right to live, give birth, and parent in safe, sustainable communities. Notably, the group mobilized to end the shackling of pregnant people in prisons and jails across various states. National Bail Out’s #FreeBlackMamas campaign addresses the elevated risks of COVID-19 for people in jails and prisons by bailing out Black mamas and caregivers.
These organizations acknowledge that they’re addressing issues that are systemic and require strategies that address institutionalized sexism and racism while working to eliminate the structural issues that reinforce reproductive coercion.
We need multi-pronged approaches to address the coercive forces experienced by domestic violence survivors, people who are incarcerated, and immigrant communities across multiple institutional contexts. As advocacy organizations confront the dynamic violence that treats certain bodies as more disposable than others, they show the transformative power of grassroots networks and community care structures.