By Kathy Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  This month provides us the opportunity to reflect, educate ourselves, and take action to stop domestic violence.  Many know about the devastation physical and sexual violence can cause in women’s lives, but a little recognized form of domestic violence has recently come to light.
Earlier this year, two studies highlighted a little discussed form of domestic violence injuring girls and women:  reproductive coercion.  “Reproductive coercion” occurs when women and girls face coercion and/or birth control sabotage by their partners, pressuring them to become pregnant against their will.[1] Reproductive coercion is especially common in physically or sexually violent relationships.
One of the most recent studies of this issue found that “among 71 women aged 18-49 with a history of intimate partner violence, 74 percent reported having experienced some form of reproductive control, including forced unprotected intercourse, failure to withdraw as promised or sabotaging of condoms. Women who became pregnant were coerced to proceed in accordance with the wishes of their partners, who in some cases threatened to kill them if they had an abortion.”[2]
A second study, “Pregnancy Coercion, Intimate Partner Violence and Unintended Pregnancy,” questioned almost 1,300 women ages 16-29 at five different reproductive health clinics in Northern California.  It found that “among those who had experienced intercourse, i.e. who could be at risk of unintended pregnancy, not only did 53 percent of respondents say they’d experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner, but one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent said they experienced birth control sabotage, including hiding or flushing birth control pills down the toilet, intentional breaking of condoms and removing contraceptive rings or patches.”[3]
Lead researcher Elizabeth Miller, MD advocated a sound solution:  staff and medical professionals at women’s health clinics should be trained to ask patients targeted questions in order to recognize the signs of reproductive coercion.  Further, women’s health clinics should be on alert to provide women facing reproductive coercion with birth control options that can be kept secret from their partners, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs).
Unwanted pregnancy could serve as a red flag for healthcare professionals, a way to warn a provider that their patient may be a victim of domestic violence.  An even more recent study, “A Family Planning Clinic Partner Violence Intervention to Reduce Risk Associated with Reproductive Coercion,” published August 30 in the journal Contraception, found that, in fact, “Asking young women during family planning clinic visits if they experienced reproductive coercion dramatically reduced the odds of their male partners attempting to force them to become pregnant.”[4]
Domestic violence awareness and prevention programs aimed at men are also part of the solution.  These programs get at the heart of the issue:  why abusive males are coercing their partners at all and preventing violence before it starts.  A study in 2007 found that “some young men said outright that they’d insisted on condomless sex as a way to establish power over female partners.”[5] Programs targeted at young men could become part of sex, family, and relationship curricula in schools in order to reach a wide audience.
Virginia’s Department of Health recently applied for, and received, abstinence-only sex education funds while ignoring a new funding stream initiated by the Obama administration—the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP).  PREP provides grants to states toward comprehensive sex education, and is a greater opportunity for schools to address healthy relationships and teach teens how to make safe choices in their sex education programs.
A leading domestic violence prevention organization, the Family Violence Prevention Fund offers another solution—the kNOw More Campaign.  As Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Stoler said, the campaign aims “to raise awareness about reproductive coercion, control and violence, start a dialogue about the birth control sabotage and reproductive coercion that many teens and young women face, and to help draw the link to the reproductive health problems it causes.  If we are serious about stopping unplanned pregnancy, we must address the sexual violence and reproductive control that often cause it and if we are serious about improving women’s health, we must address the violence that too many young women experience.”
  • Read the ACLU Women’s Rights Project’s Fact Sheet “Domestic Violence:  Protective Orders and the Role of Police Enforcement” here.
  • Read The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s Fact Sheets about teens, pregnancy, reproductive health, and domestic violence here and here.
  • Visit The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s site kNOw More Say More to learn more, take action, and hear stories from women who have experienced reproductive coercion.

[1] A comprehensive overview of these studies appeared in: Lynn Harris, When Teen Pregnancy Is No Accident, The Nation, May 24, 2010.  Available at http://www.thenation.com/article/when-teen-pregnancy-no-accident.
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Partner Violence Intervention Reduces Pregnancy Coercion, New Study Finds, Family Violence Prevention Fund.  Available at http://www.endabuse.org/content/features/detail/1576/.
[5] Lynn Harris, When Teen Pregnancy Is No Accident, The Nation, May 24, 2010.