Reproductive rights activists have posited that the rise in unwanted and unplanned pregnancies among teens and young women in recent years could be due to the failure to use adequate birth control or the effects of abstinence-only-until-marriage education. A new study indicates, however, that reproductive coercion may be an additional factor. This type of abuse of power is defined as male pressure on his partner to control her reproductive choices and decisions. Research conducted at the University of California at Davis has revealed that many young women experience this type of harassment and intimidation. In the study, 1,300 women between the ages of 16 and 29 were asked questions about birth-control sabotage, pregnancy coercion, and partner violence.
The study found that one in five women said they had experienced pregnancy coercion and 15% had experienced birth-control sabotage. More than half had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. The researchers concluded that the rate of unintended pregnancy was double among women who experienced reproductive coercion and partner violence.
These research findings might explain why unintended pregnancies are so much more common among women and teens who have been abused. Younger women may have a harder time dealing with this phenomenon as they generally have less access to doctors’ appointments and emergency contraception, especially if they are minors. Additionally, less experience with intimate relationships may contribute to a difference between perceived and actual reproductive choices. Young women are also less likely to be earning enough money to support themselves, and may be more likely to depend on their male partnerswhich is ultimately the goal of abusers–not an actual, wanted child.
“What we’re seeing is that, in the larger scheme of violence against women and girls, it is another way to maintain control,” says Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of California, Davis. “You have guys telling their partners ‘I can do this because I’m in control’ or ‘I want to know that I can have you forever.’”
There is discussion about potentially including reproductive coercion under the umbrella of sexual abuse, which would require healthcare professionals to report each case to the authorities. But this may not be the best way to handle such situations. Miller advocates a solution wherein a woman’s doctor could provide a more covert means of contraception and counseling that could help her “explore the possibility of ending the relationship.”
Whether or not reproductive coercion is determined to be an indicator of an abusive relationship, it is a significant violation of a woman’s right to choose and be comfortable in her own reproductive decisions. Covert birth control prescribed by a woman’s doctor is a necessary first step, but affected women must also be provided with the skills and support needed to avoid or leave unhealthy and malignant relationships. And there needs to be targeted outreach to young men who may commit reproductive coercion, through school programs, faith communities, or other sources. This problem will need both men and women to solve it.