What is reproductive coercion?

On an episode of Saturday Night Live, Pete Davidson (Arianna Grande’s fiancé at the time) jokingly stated that he switched out Arianna’s birth control with Tic Tacs. Much to the amusement of the audience, Davidson then followed his statement with, “I just want to make sure… that she cannot go anywhere.” But at Genesis, we know that what are considered “jokes” in entertainment and social media are the harsh reality for the women we serve.

Reproductive coercion occurs when an abuser exerts power and control over their partner’s reproductive health and decisions.

This abuse can range from birth control sabotage and pregnancy coercion to forced abortions or forced sexual coercion. Because the warning signs of reproductive coercion can be difficult to detect, this abuse tactic is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. For example, not all large families are a result of reproductive coercion, but for women experiencing this type of abuse, it is easy to mistake her large family as a plan rather than abuse. It can be so easy to miss that systems designed to support women’s health often overlook the warning signs. When a woman experiences reproductive coercion, her health is compromised and her ability to make decisions for herself are limited.

As a result of this, her autonomy is stripped away and barriers are created in how and when she can access healthcare. Women who experience this form of abuse are often physically threatened or abused when they do not comply with the demands of their partner. Birth control can be intentionally sabotaged as well, ranging from tampering with contraception to refusing to allow her to refill her birth control prescription.

We also know that abusers often attempt to act out with violence towards their pregnant partner with the desire or hope for a forced miscarriage (Miller & Silverman, 2010). In addition, young women experience reproductive coercion at higher rates and are more likely to have their abusive partner refuse to use contraception or encourage pregnancy-promoting behaviors.

Take for example, Cyndi. Cyndi was a victim of reproduction coercion by her ex-husband and had four children under the age of 5. On her teacher’s salary, she could not afford rent for herself and her four children, quality childcare, school, insurance and rising food costs. Before her divorce was finalized, Cyndi’s ex made a false CPS report. Because of CPS’s involvement in her life, she was required to have separate rooms for her boys and her girls, so she needed a two-bedroom apartment. Cyndi’s parents invited her to stay with them and offered her support, but they didn’t have enough space for Cyndi and her children.

An average two-bedroom apartment in Dallas costs $1,200. Cyndi was passed over for a promotion because of her extended maternity leave, thus impacting both her physical health and finances. Because she had four children back-to-back, she had multiple high-risk pregnancies and was on bed rest and unable to work for long periods of time. Months after her youngest was born, Cyndi was still recovering and struggling to afford quality healthcare and dealt with the pain and recovery of a difficult birth on a daily basis.

While this sounds like a hopeless situation, at Genesis, we have advocates who help women like Cyndi.

We remind them that they are not alone, and reassure them that they are believed and supported. We walk beside her and help her navigate what’s best for her, as well as offer additional resources. If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, call our 24-hour hotline at 214.946.HELP (4357).

Written by Jennifer Livings, PhD. Jennifer is senior director of programs and client services at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.


Additional Information:

In a nationally representative sample, approximately one in four women reported coerced sex at some point in her life, and more than a third were 15 years old or younger at the time of their first coerced sexual experience (Stockman et al., 2010).

In a college survey, 23 percent of female college students and seven percent of male college students reported at least one experience of unwanted sexual intercourse (Flack et al., 2007).

Among family planning clinic clients, 15 percent of female clients with a history of physical and/or sexual IPV reported birth control sabotage from a partner (Chamberlain & Levenson, 2012).

Reproductive coercion may be one mechanism that helps to explain the known association between IPV and unintended pregnancy (Miller et al., 2010c).

IPV is associated with poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes compared to non-abused women (Moore et al., 2010). This includes being at a greater risk of unintended pregnancy, repeat abortions, second-trimester abortions, and sexually transmitted infections (Miller et al., 2010c; Jones & Finer, 2011)

Violence and reproductive health are strongly linked. Unplanned pregnancies increase women’s risk for violence and violence increases women’s risk for unplanned pregnancies. Women who are IPV victims are more likely to be in relationships with a partner who controls their contraceptive methods.

Practicing contraception is more difficult for women who have experienced IPV because of partner unwillingness to use contraception (Gee et al., 2009). Additionally, women who are exposed to IPV by the man who got them pregnant are more likely than non-abused women to have a second-trimester abortion (Jones & Finer, 2011).

Abusive men are more likely than their non-abusive peers to report being involved in pregnancies ending in abortion. There is a strong association between IPV and involvement in three or more abortions (Silverman et al., 2010).