Health experts challenge coerced-abortion laws

Posted on: August 29th, 2012 by Sofia Resnick 38 Comments

Anti-abortion protest (Flickr/Anna Levinzon)

On a Friday morning in September 2005, 22-year-old Brittany Wilson sat in a Planned Parenthood clinic a mile away from her home in Sioux Falls, S.D., and bawled her eyes out.

Ten days before, she had called the clinic to schedule an abortion. Three days before her appointment, she had called back to listen to some state-mandated information about the risks of abortion and her legal rights. And moments before, she had driven to the clinic alone and paid $447. But she was crying, she would later say, because she did not want this abortion.

The Planned Parenthood staffer whose job it was to make sure this abortion was voluntary and informed noticed Brittany’s distress and asked her if she had considered adoption. Brittany said she did not “want to do that.”

Through the staffer, the doctor told Brittany she didn’t have to have the abortion that day. Brittany said, “I’m alright,” and went out to lunch.

Later that day, a doctor vacuumed out her 7-week-old embryo*.

In the months and years that followed, Brittany would say in federal court that her boyfriend had forced her to have an abortion she didn’t want. She blamed Planned Parenthood for letting it happen. Brittany did not sue the abortion provider, but testified in defense of a 2005 state law requiring abortion providers to inform clients of certain state-determined risks of abortion — some of which are disputed by mainstream scientific organizations — including the claim that abortion puts women at higher risk for depression and suicide. (The legal challenge over the 2005 law was finally resolved this year, with all of the controversial provisions being upheld on appeal.)

In her testimony – given during a deposition under oath and later in a handwritten declaration – Brittany asserted that Planned Parenthood had not given her enough information to help her make an informed decision. She also said that after her abortion, she had an emotional breakdown and started drinking heavily; she indicated that she had already been taking medicine to treat depression before the abortion.

Brittany’s story is again being used in federal court — this time to defend a South Dakota law that addresses the issue of coerced abortion. Anti-abortion advocates have claimed that coerced abortion has reached crisis levels in the United States, despite a lack of scientific evidence showing that to be the case. The law – pieces of which went into effect in July – is part of a national legislative trend pushed by anti-abortion leaders, which in large part relies on the testimony of women who regret their abortions.

This year alone, at least 11 states have considered abortion bills that deal with coercion, according to Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion policy group in Washington, D.C. AUL specializes in anti-abortion model legislation and has developed an anti-coercion bill, titled “Coercive Abuse Against Mothers Prevention Act.”

Often, anti-coercion policies are introduced as part of a package of restrictions and regulations and either dictate that an abortion provider must screen women for coercion, as in the case of a recently passed law in Wisconsin, or that an abortion provider must post signs in abortion clinic waiting rooms saying that it is illegal for anyone to pressure a woman into having an abortion, as in the case of a new law in Arizona. An omnibus anti-abortion bill in Michigan, which would enact similar coercion-related policies, passed the state House earlier this year and is now being considered by the state Senate.

South Dakota’s new law, which was passed last year and modified this year, goes far beyond simply mandating that the abortion doctor screen for coercion. If the law survives the legal challenge, women will have to wait 72 hours after they schedule the abortion, meaning they will have to make two trips to the state’s only abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, which provides abortions once a week on average. During that waiting period, women will have to submit to an interview at one of three state-sanctioned “pregnancy help centers,” all of which are faith-based and are vocally opposed to abortion. The point of this interview, as stated in the bill, is so the pregnancy help center can “discuss [the pregnant woman’s] circumstances that may subject her to coercion.” Additionally, the pregnancy help centers can use the interview as an opportunity to  “inform the pregnant mother … what counseling, education, and assistance that is available to the pregnant mother to help her maintain her relationship with her unborn child.”

Some of these new anti-coercion laws, including South Dakota’s, contain provisions making it easier to sue abortion doctors for failing to adequately screen for coercion.

Supporters of anti-coercion abortion bills argue that these policies are meant to protect women. But critics claim that – like laws that single out abortion clinics by imposing difficult-to-meet construction requirements – anti-coercion policies are really meant to make accessing abortion more complicated in the short term, and illegal in the long term.

The South Dakota lawmaker behind the state’s new anti-coercion abortion law and the 2005 informed-consent abortion law told The American Independent that the underlying intention of these bills was to create a legal framework for more abortion restrictions.

“This law, and even the 2005 law, basically legally speaking, this doesn’t deal with the same legal theories that Roe v. Wade dealt with,” Rep. Roger Hunt (R-Brandon) said. “This presents brand-new legal arguments … relative to abortions. The basic idea is that these laws would allow the Supreme Court to give states the right to adopt similar legislation.”

Legal scholars, such as Yale University law professor Reva Siegel, have described the rationale underpinning these types of laws as the “woman-protective” anti-abortion argument. Siegel, who has written extensively about anti-coercion efforts in South Dakota and elsewhere, observed in a 2008 Duke Law Journal article that the anti-abortion movement has begun to “supplant the constitutional argument ‘Abortion kills a baby’ with a new claim ‘Abortion hurts women.’”

Anti-coercion or anti-abortion?

Many public-health professionals who support abortion rights oppose these types of abortion laws because they say anti-coercion policies that single out abortion sidestep the broader issue of domestic and sexual violence, which many believe is the root of coercion.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a medical doctor and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, has been researching domestic and sexual violence issues for more than 20 years. She told TAI that while her research has uncovered some evidence of coerced abortion, there is not enough data to show it being a pervasive problem.

What the data shows, she said, is that sexual coercion – women being forced into sexual activity – is a pervasive problem. She said that sexual coercion often leads to unwanted pregnancies, followed by abusive partners trying to control the outcome of the pregnancy, be it by trying to force the woman to continue with the pregnancy or to abort. Reproductive coercion can take the form of men sabotaging their partners’ birth control methods or otherwise forcibly impregnating them.

Very little research has been done exclusively on coerced abortions, and Miller told TAI there is not enough data to compare the rates of forced pregnancies and forced abortions.

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed approximately 1,300 men recruited from three community health centers in lower-income Boston-area neighborhoods. About 32 percent of participants reported having perpetrated physical or sexual violence against a female partner; 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion; and 4 percent reported having at one point “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

Jay Silverman, a professor of medicine and global health at the University of California at San Diego, told TAI that recent laws addressing coerced abortion are nothing more than anti-abortion laws that have been “barely dressed up” as public-health policies intended to protect women.

“It’s not that [coerced abortions] could not exist,” said Silverman, who frequently collaborates with Miller and coauthored the 2010 study. “It’s that the issue is to assist women by working to help identify instances of domestic violence. … In the climate where there is so much political hostility related to women’s reproductive rights, [singling out abortion] really inhibits a comprehensive agenda from being established.”

‘Abortion is not an option’

In the years since her abortion, Brittany Weston (she has since married) has given birth to a child and now lives in Yankton, S.D. Weston says it was her former boyfriend, Joe (an alias), who, in her words, “pressured” her into having the abortion seven years ago. In a declaration dated July 1, 2011, Weston wrote, “If the Planned Parenthood counselors had any interest in determining that I was being forced to have an abortion, I would not have had an abortion and would have my child today.” And when she testified in favor of South Dakota’s new coercion law at a state House Judiciary Committee hearing (minute 22:13) in February 2011, she said: “I wanted Planned Parenthood to rescue me from the man who was forcing me to have an abortion. All they did was his bidding.”

Weston has said that from February to May 2006, she attended a post-abortion therapy program at the Alpha Center, a crisis pregnancy center in Sioux Falls. In April 2006, about a year after Planned Parenthood’s South Dakota affiliate filed a lawsuit against the state’s just-passed informed-consent abortion law, Weston was called as a witness by the counsel representing two CPCs (known in South Dakota as “pregnancy help centers”). The Alpha Center and Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in Rapid City had entered the case as “intervenors” – meaning that alongside the defendants, these centers could take discovery and question witnesses. Those very same centers are once again intervenors in the current lawsuit.

Based on the two sworn affidavits Weston submitted in both lawsuits and a deposition she gave in the first lawsuit, this is what Weston says happened:

In July 2005, Weston had nearly completed her college degree and had started dating Joe, who was 41 years old, had two kids, and worked as a therapist counseling adolescent children. Two months later, when she was about to start a new full-time job, Weston discovered she was pregnant. The way she tells it, “I quickly told the nurse [at a local health clinic] in a forceful manner that ‘abortion is not an option.’”

When she later asked Joe for his emotional and financial support, she says he told her, “We can’t have a kid.” He said he didn’t want to pay child support for a third child, and for reasons that are not explained in Weston’s testimony, she says Joe told her that if she had the baby and it became known that he was the father, he would lose his job.

“At no time did I ever want an abortion,” she wrote in her initial affidavit, dated May 16, 2006. “Joe wanted me to have one. When I agreed to get an appointment for an abortion at Planned Parenthood, I scheduled the abortion for Joe, not for me.”

In that affidavit, she also said that when she reviewed her medical records related to the abortion, she was “surprised – even dismayed” to learn that the abortion doctor had certified that Weston had “given informed consent freely and without coercion to this abortion.”

“In fact, whatever consent, if any, was given at all, it was under pressure, against what I wanted, and it was not informed in any meaningful way,” Weston wrote.

Weston’s explanation of how Joe pressured her into having an abortion is essentially that he persuaded her, and told her to keep the pregnancy a secret. “I was very emotionally dependant on Joe and I thought I needed his approval,” she wrote.

Nowhere in either of her declarations does she allege she told any staff at Planned Parenthood that she did not want to have an abortion.

“I suspect it must be hard for others to understand this phenomenon about how I was pressured into going to Planned Parenthood’s clinic against my desires, because I struggle to understand it myself,” Weston wrote. “But my experience should be understood, not dismissed, because I am now certain it is a common experience for women. I now understand that it is common for women to have abortions they don’t want, especially when the father of their child wants it for himself.”

Is it coercion?

The original version of South Dakota’s 2011 anti-coercion law defined “coercion” very broadly.

In full, the definition read:

“Coercion,” exists if the pregnant mother has a desire to carry her unborn child and give birth, but is induced, influenced, or persuaded to submit to an abortion by another person or persons against her desire. Such inducement, influence, or persuasion may be by use of, or threat of, force, or may be by pressure or intimidation effected through psychological means, particularly by a person who has a relationship with the pregnant mother that gives that person influence over the pregnant mother.

In its initial suit against the law, South Dakota’s Planned Parenthood affiliate argued that this definition was unconstitutionally vague, and the court agreed. So in early 2012, the legislature narrowed that definition. The most controversial provisions of this law – a 72-hour pre-abortion waiting period and a mandatory interview at a state-sanctioned pregnancy help center to screen for coercion – are still blocked and under litigation, but other provisions detailing how abortion providers must now screen for coercion went into effect last month.

The state’s definition of “coercion” is now closer to the universal understanding of that word:

“Coercion,” exists if the pregnant mother is induced to consent to an abortion by any other person under circumstances, or in such a manner, which deprives her from making a free decision or exercising her free will.

But when Hunt introduced the revised bill (minute 38:55) to the state House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, he was still vague on the notion of coerced abortions, stating, “When the husband or the boyfriend or the father is sitting in the outer waiting room of the Planned Parenthood clinic, that in and of itself can easily be construed as coercion.”

Aspen Baker, the executive director of Exhale, a California-based support hotline for women who have had abortions, told TAI that she thinks there is a distinct difference between pressure and coercion when it comes to women’s decisions to abort.

“In life we feel pressure,” said Baker, who founded Exhale in 2000, a year after having an abortion and being unable to find an organization to help her deal with her sadness afterward.

“I feel pressure to eat healthy and go to the gym. Pressure is part of life and part of our work relationships and family relationships. I think of coercion as being more sinister and intentional and controlling or abusive.”

“If you’re pregnant and you don’t want to be, you feel pressured really fast to find out what you are going to do about it,” Baker continued. “There is pressure to make that decision, and not everyone navigates that pressure well. Coercion is related to violence and abuse.”

Baker’s own abortion story is in some ways similar to Weston’s, but unlike Weston, she ultimately views her abortion as a voluntary decision, albeit a difficult one.

In an interview that was uploaded to YouTube in 2009, Baker says that when she got pregnant at 23, she immediately wanted the baby, but the man who impregnated her wanted her to abort.

“It felt like one thing to become a mom, and then it was another thing to be really clear that it was going to be as a single mom,” Baker says in the video. “I decided that’s not actually what I wanted to do and not the way I wanted to become a parent and not the sort of ticket that I wanted to write to myself for the rest of my life.”

Baker, who favors abortion rights, said that Exhale’s hotline receives about 650 calls each month but that only a minority of the callers talk about coercion. More often, she said, women talk about economic pressures to abort and not having support from their partner or family to continue the pregnancy.

Asked if coerced abortion appears to be a widespread problem among the women she has talked to at Exhale, Baker said, “I would say that domestic abuse is a widespread social problem.”

For more than a year, lawmakers in South Dakota have been arguing that coerced abortions are widespread in the state. TAI reached out to several domestic violence advocates in the state, who told us that coerced abortion was not an issue they were aware of.

“In 25 years, I don’t know that I have ever heard it being reported that someone was forced to abort,” said Krista Heeren-Graber, director of the South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, based in Sioux Falls.

She said that within her network of domestic-violence counselors and shelter directors, the issue of reproductive coercion – women being coerced into having babies – has come up sometimes.

Mary Corbine, the executive director at a Rapid City women’s shelter called Working Against Violence Inc., told TAI in an email: “We serve many women whose partners do not allow them to be on birth control. I have not heard much if anything about forced abortions.”

When TAI asked South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley’s office about the prevalence of coerced abortions – and ultimately, what the new law accomplishes – a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told us to contact Harold Cassidy, a prominent pro-life lawyer from New Jersey. Cassidy has been representing the two pregnancy help centers in the recent lawsuits over the state’s abortion laws. If the rest of the anti-coercion law goes into effect, all women seeking abortions in the state will first have to be screened for coercion by a counselor at one of his clients’ centers or a third pregnancy help center in Spearfish.

“There is no question that women are being coerced [into having abortions],” Cassidy said.

While conceding that “there aren’t any detailed studies that have tracked women coerced into having abortions in South Dakota,” Cassidy told TAI that the incidence of coerced abortion in this state, and at the national level, has reached “crisis proportions.” As evidence, he said that the 3,000-some pregnancy help centers across the country have reported vast instances of women claiming to have been coerced into having abortions.

“Abortion clinics do not do post-abortion counseling,” Cassidy said. “They create a mess, and the pregnancy help centers are cleaning it up.”

He said that through depositions taken in the lawsuit over South Dakota’s informed-consent law, testimony from Planned Parenthood directors and staff showed that “patient educators” often were not licensed counselors, and they didn’t really counsel women on their decision but instead operated under the assumption that women’s minds are made up before they come to the clinic.

Profiling Cassidy in Mother Jones last year, writer Sarah Blustain reported that Cassidy first came up with the signature concept of South Dakota’s 2005 informed-consent statute, that “abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” and that abortion terminates a pregnant woman’s “existing relationship with that unborn human being.” It’s a concept Cassidy developed in the abortion-related cases he’s tried in the past two decades, including one where a teenaged girl said her parents had coerced her into having an abortion.

Cassidy told TAI that the environment at Planned Parenthood is geared toward terminating that relationship between the pregnant woman and her unborn child. The point of first sending women to a pregnancy help center, he said, is so the center can help them ask: “Can I and do I want to keep my relationship with my child?”

Jen Aulwes, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, told TAI that, under her organization’s protocol, a doctor at Planned Parenthood could not perform an abortion if the woman says she’s being forced to abort. And Cassidy pointed out that, under state law, if a doctor were to perform an abortion despite a woman’s claim of coercion, that doctor would be guilty of malpractice.

What the new law does is create a new cause of action specific to coerced abortions.

Failure to comply with the provisions in this law creates “a rebuttable presumption” (meaning a claim that defense would have to disprove) that if the pregnant mother had been informed or assessed “in accordance with the requirements of this chapter,” she would not have aborted.

In this case, it would be up to the jury to “determine whether this particular mother, if she had been given all of the information a reasonably prudent patient in her circumstance would consider significant, as well as all information required by [the law]” … would have consented to the abortion “based upon her personal background and personality, her physical and psychological condition, and her personal philosophical, religious, ethical, and moral beliefs.”

But if it is determined that the abortion was the result of coercion and that the physician was negligent in failing to discover that coercion, “there is a nonrebuttable presumption [meaning it cannot be disproved] that the mother would not have consented to the abortion if the physician had complied with the provisions.”

“What the legislature did is very fascinating,” Cassidy told TAI. “Section 61 is very sophisticated to a trial lawyer like me. … I don’t think these kinds of presumptions have been passed in other states.”

Sworn proof

Anti-abortion advocates who insist that coerced abortion is common in the U.S. often cite testimonies like Brittany Weston’s and news reports, like those about Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider who last year was charged with the murder of seven babies and a woman and was subsequently accused of violently forcing a teenager to have an abortion against her will.

A major source behind the coercion claim is the nation’s large network of crisis pregnancy centers, many of which offer post-abortion counseling. This is has been true for South Dakota.

In 2005, a 17-member legislative committee called the Task Force to Study Abortion submitted a controversial report to the governor’s office claiming “that women are often subjected to coercion in the form of overt and subtle pressures from outside sources.” Rep. Roger Hunt, who served on the task force and sponsored the legislation that created it, told TAI that part of the state’s evidence that many women are pressured into having abortions comes from that report.

The report cited the testimony of CPC directors, such as Alpha Center co-founder Leslee Unruh, who “stated that among the post-abortive women seeking counseling … 75% to 85% in any given year report that they felt they were misled by the abortion clinics and that their decisions were uninformed and, in many ways, coerced.” Care Net Pregnancy Center director Stacey Wollman “testified that … almost 60% of the post-abortive women receiving counseling stated that their abortions were the result of some form of coercion.”

The task force also claimed to have received “powerful oral and written testimony from about 1,950 women who underwent abortions. Virtually all of them stated they thought their abortions were uninformed or coerced or both.” The bulk of those testimonies came from an anti-abortion legal nonprofit called the Justice Foundation, in the form of three volumes of 1,500 affidavits collected from women all over the country.

As Yale University law professor Reva Siegel uncovered, in 2000, the Justice Foundation, which is based in San Antonio, Texas, had started a project called Operation Outcry, which, according to Operation Outcry’s website, was set up to collect “legally admissible testimonies called ‘Declarations’ for submission to courts and legislatures in efforts to limit or ban abortion.” Shortly thereafter, a quarterly webzine called At the Center, which is published by a Christian-owned publishing company and distributed by crisis pregnancy centers across the country, included in one issue blank questionnaires that were meant to be filled out by women who have had abortions, signed by a notary public, and then mailed back to the Justice Foundation to be used in court cases. The affidavit included questions, such as: “Were you informed of any link between abortion and breast cancer?” “Did anyone pressure you into having an abortion?” “Based on your own experience, what would you tell a court that believes abortion should be legal?”

In the last decade, those affidavits have made their way across the country, influencing legislative debates on abortion restrictions. The Justice Foundation has claimed that affidavits and declarations from women have been submitted to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and state legislatures in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas.

And though they are used in South Dakota as evidence of coercion, the questions in these declaration forms, slightly updated since 2001, never ask specifically about coercion. Nowhere is the word “coercion” even mentioned. Instead, respondents are asked: “Did anyone pressure you into having an abortion? If so, who?”

In one affidavit used by the task force, among several that were obtained by TAI, a woman from Alabama said she was pressured by her “mother’s only sister” to have an abortion. She is not asked to explain how her aunt pressured her, but when she is asked what she would tell a court that believes abortion should be legal, she writes: “I would have never considered abortion if it had not been legal. My aunt said abortion would not be legal if it was not OK. I was stupid to believe her.”

The Justice Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In a recent online newsletter, the organization claimed that Operation Outcry was approaching 5,000 “declarations,” which can be submitted using online form.

Any state can easily access a sample of these affidavits along with anti-coercion model legislation supplied by the Elliot Institute for Social Research, another source for evidence of the coerced abortion phenomenon.

The nonprofit, based in Springfield, Ill., was founded in the late 1980s by David Reardon, a prominent anti-abortion leader. A self-described “medical bioethicist,” Reardon is largely credited with encouraging the anti-abortion movement to embrace the “women-protective” argument.

Asked about the prevalence of coerced abortion in the United States, Reardon sent TAI a Wiki-style web page, which reads in part:

If a “coerced abortion” is understood in this context to mean one in which the woman feels pressured by others to have an abortion, the best range of estimates is that between 30 and 65 percent of abortions involve feelings of being pressured to have an abortion.

That figure, Reardon says, comes from an older study published by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights organizations that specializes in abortion-related research and policy recommendations. He does not quote directly from the study but from a 1990 article authored by “pro-choice ethicist” Daniel Callahan: “Data reported by the Alan Gutmacher [sic] Institute indicate that some 30 percent of women have an abortion because someone else, not the woman, wants it.”

But Guttmacher spokesperson Rebecca Wind disputed that use of the groups’ research.

“Several anti abortion outlets have tried to make the claim that women obtain abortions because someone else wants them based on the [Guttmacher] Institute’s study of why women access abortion,” Wind said in an email.

Wind sent TAI a different Guttmacher publication from 2005 reporting that in 1987 and 2004, less than 2 percent of women surveyed reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion. The study also showed that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 reported that husbands or partners wanting them to have an abortion was one of the reasons they decided to have an abortion. Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed parents wanting them to have an abortion as one of their reasons.

The larger 65 percent figure in Reardon’s notes comes from a 2004 study co-authored by Reardon and anti-abortion researchers Vincent Rue and Priscilla Coleman about abortion and traumatic stress. That study found that among America women who reported having an abortion, “64 percent ‘felt pressured by others’ to have the abortion.”

The Elliot Institute’s 22-page report, titled “Forced Abortion in America,” is filled with anecdotes about women being allegedly coerced into having abortions.

Reproductive coercion

When Chief Judge Karen Schreier temporarily blocked key provisions of South Dakota’s anti-coerced-abortion law last year, she cited a different type of coercion.

“[I]t is generally accepted that women are often the victims of abuse,” Schreier wrote, referencing a sworn affidavit filed on Planned Parenthood’s behalf, by clinical psychologist and researcher Lenore E. Walker, who specializes in domestic and family violence. “And abusers often forcibly impregnate their partners to maintain control or increase their control over their women. … The abusers in such relationships closely monitor the women. … For example, the abuser will often keep track of the mileage on the car or remove the distributor cap on the car to prevent the woman from leaving the house. … For those women who are in such relationships, the 72-Hour Requirement creates an incredible obstacle because it requires them to make separate trips, which for many is effectively impossible to do because two trips doubles the chances of being ‘caught’ and punished by the abusive partner.”

Schreier’s comment that women are often the victims of abuse is backed by data. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than one in three women in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Several studies in recent years have found a strong association between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancies – that unplanned pregnancies are two to three times more likely than planned pregnancies to be associated with domestic violence. Qualitative and quantitative data have shown that the high associations between domestic violence and unplanned pregnancies are related to abusive men forcing their partners to have sexual intercourse, forcing their partners to have unprotected sex, and in some cases intentionally trying to impregnate their partners — a phenomenon dubbed “reproductive coercion.”

The CDC’s Sexual Violence Survey found that in 2010, about 9 percent of women in the U.S. reported at one time having an intimae partner who tried to get them pregnant against their will or who refused to use a condom.

Domestic violence researchers Dr. Elizabeth Miller and Jay Silverman, among others, have worked on numerous studies and research papers relating to this phenomenon. Reproductive coercion – which can be physical or verbal – can include sabotaging birth control (poking holes in condoms, flushing birth control pills, ripping out vaginal rings) or otherwise forcibly impregnating female partners.

A study published in the January 2010 issue of the journal Contraception and co-authored by several researchers including Miller and Silverman, found that approximately one in five among the approximately 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California said they had experienced said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the women said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

At this point, a lot of the research done on reproductive coercion has been qualitative and based on interviews with women and men at abortion clinics and reproductive health clinics in specific communities. From those interviews, researchers have learned that sometimes men want their partners to have their baby to prove loyalty or love. Interviews have found that men about to go to prison will sometimes try to impregnate their partners before being locked up.

David Reardon doesn’t buy the theory that coerced abortion is merely a small subset of the broader issue of reproductive coercion.

“I am frankly surprised by the claim that abusive men are attempting to stop women from getting on birth control,” he told TAI in an email. “My impression is that abusive men are more likely to be so narcissistic that they would rather not have any children around laying claims on the their time, their money, or the time and affection of their women. … I support any reasonable laws that help to prevent abuse in any form, including this hypothetical problem. But I simply don’t have a pile of testimonies or statistics which indicated that there has ever been one case, much less many cases, of women being abused to prevent them from using birth control and I’m highly suspicious that this alleged problem is being raised as an artificial counterpoint to the very real problem of coerced abortions.”

But to researchers like Silverman and Miller, these two forms of abuse are related. What it’s mostly about, they say, is control.

“Violence and abuse is about power and control,” said Miller, who noted that research has found that abusive men who forcibly impregnate women tend to continue the abuse throughout the pregnancy.

Like Reardon, Miller also wants to reduce the rate of abortion, and both agree that intervention is key to helping women in abusive relationships get help. In fact, Miller and Silverman are currently working on an intervention project in Western Pennsylvania – similar to one they have done in California – to help reproductive-health workers recognize domestic and sexual violence.

“Given that about half of the pregnancies in this country are unintended, I think the key policy piece is recognizing that addressing violence against women will also ultimately help us to address this problem of unintended pregnancy,” Miller said. “To slice out coerced abortion as if it is an isolated phenomenon is wrong.”

*Correction: TAI previously mislabeled the stage of development as fetus, when it should be embryo.


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