Media attention focuses on reproductive coercion

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Illustration by Jessica Anyatonwu.

Although reproductive health is a topic on which politicians constantly voice their apparently expert, yet often medically inaccurate, opinions on women’s health, it is crucial to remember that our sexual and reproductive health and rights must be respected and recognized, starting in our everyday relationships. 

An alarming form of abuse, called reproductive coercion, sparked media attention last week when the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a committee opinion which recommends health care providers screen women and adolescent girls for intimate partner violence and reproductive coercion during routine doctor visits such as annual examinations.

Reproductive coercion is a form of abuse that a perpetrator uses to maintain power in a relationship by interfering with a woman’s reproductive decisions, such as by impregnating a partner against her will, coercing a partner to have unprotected sex and interfering with contraceptive methods by poking holes in condoms or hiding birth control pills. Reproductive coercion can also occur when a partner uses threats or acts of violence to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her wishes or mandates that a woman terminate a pregnancy she wants to keep.

Reproductive coercion has been studied for years, and researchers find it is highly correlated with unintended pregnancy and tends to occur at higher rates for women that have a history of intimate partner violence. A 2007 study published in Ambulatory Pediatrics found one in four adolescent females reported that their abusive male partners were trying to get them pregnant by interfering with their contraceptive decisions. 

A study from the Guttmacher Institute, a group which works to advance sexual and reproductive health through research and policy programs, confirmed findings that women with a history of intimate partner violence or sexual abuse tend to be at greater risk for coercion. Researcher Ann Moore and colleagues found 53 out of the 71 women with a history of abuse said they had experienced reproductive coercion by their male partners.

Another study published in 2010 in “Contraception” interviewed patients at family planning clinics and found 19 percent of 16- to 29-year-old women said they experienced pregnancy coercion and 15 percent reported they experienced birth control sabotage. More than half of the respondents said they had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

“This study highlights an under-recognized phenomenon where male partners actively attempt to promote pregnancy against the will of their female partners,” said lead study author Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine and a practitioner at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “Not only is reproductive coercion associated with violence from male partners, but when women report experiencing both reproductive coercion and partner violence, the risk for unintended pregnancy increases significantly.”

Putting politics aside, researchers and mental health professionals consistently recognize the importance of providing education and counseling to help women regain and protect their reproductive health choices and physical safety from acts such as reproductive coercion.

“We want to make sure that health care providers are aware that this is something that does go on and that it’s a form of abuse,” said Veronica Gillispie, a member of the committee who wrote the opinion for ACOG published in the February issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology and an obstetrician and gynecologist at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an abusive partner and may be suffering from reproductive coercion, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center on campus.