"Reproductive coercion" is defined by the American National Domestic Violence Hotline as threats or acts of violence against a partner's reproductive health or reproductive decision making.
This definition spans from external instances of poking holes in condoms, replacing birth-control pills, and lying about vasectomies to physically removing internal birth-control instruments like intrauterine devices. It also includes emotional manipulation by partners from "I can't be with you if I have to wear a condom," to "I'll have a baby with someone else if you don't become pregnant."
The problem is more widespread then it is publicized. The NDVH recently asserted that one in four callers to their hotline reported instances of birth control sabotage and pregnancy coercion. A report from the Teen Parent Project in Chicago stated that 14 per cent of surveyed young mothers reported birth control sabotage. Linda Chamberlain and Rebecca Levenson recently published a piece on reproductive coercion through The Family Violence Prevention Fund that stated 66 per cent of teen mothers on public assistance who had recently experienced intimate partner violence disclosed birth control sabotage by a partner. When these women tried to negotiate the terms of their birth control 32 per cent were verbally threatened, 21 per cent were physically abused, and 14 per cent said their partner threatened to leave.
Considering the oppressive nature behind such tactics, it is no wonder that forms of reproductive coercion are directly linked to domestic violence. Beyond the serious emotional consequences through these instances of misogynistic bullying, if the woman becomes pregnant her body is then manipulated three times over. First through the act itself -- performing a sexual act without consent -- which clearly is in line with other manifestations of sexual assault. Second she must surrender control of her body by inhabiting a state (pregnancy) that she did not willingly concede to and is now forced to further suffer through the physical and emotional consequences of the violence enacted upon her. The third way she is abused is through the reactive measures taken in response to the forced pregnancy -- whether it be her choice or a choice made for her by a controlling partner. Whether it is abortion, miscarriage (natural or forced), or carrying the pregnancy to term, the point is that all of these decisions are necessarily acts against her consent when the pregnancy itself is a coercive tactic meant to force the woman into submission.
A recent study entitled "Pregnancy Coercion, Intimate Partner Violence and Unintended Pregnancy" from the 2010 edition of Contraception found that 85-93 per cent of women who experienced reproductive coercion or birth control sabotage also reported physical or sexual partner violence.
Abuse in all of its various forms is less about the body and always about power. I hope it can be agreed upon, collectively, that the age-old myth about strangers raping women because of her sexually suggestive clothing choices is both conspicuous and untrue. Most rape happens by people victims know and it is never purely about biology or sex itself. This is the same for all various greys of sexual assault.
Coercive pregnancy is similarly about power and control -- by manipulating someone's body you then state claim to it and can enforce control and submission without consent. Perhaps the manual removal of an IUD sounds extreme -- less extreme is someone promising to pull out during intercourse and then intentionally doing otherwise. It happens often and frequently and the male is rarely held accountable, let alone the incident defined as an "assault."
Equally as troubling is the casual discourse I've heard from friends and acquaintances on the topic of unplanned pregnancy. Lines like "I don't understand how you could get pregnant when there is so much access to birth control and we're flooded with so much information," are honest and common affirmations that knowledge about reproductive coercion is simply not available. Though I object to the sentiment that birth control awareness and access is as simple or prevalent as some might assume, I am clearly aware that the notion of an intimate partner intentionally causing pregnancy without consent is in many cases incomprehensible. The danger of reproductive coercion lies in the failure to acknowledge it as a problem or entertain the act as not only possible and, in certain cases, probable.
While I can empathize with a moralistic stance that is anti-abortion, and even sympathize with personal and religious mantras that uphold that stance, I've never understood the tactical measures of pro-life protesters shaming women entering abortion clinics. Would it not be more tactful to attack the governments, businesses, public figures and men who refuse to support women's right to self-determination, specifically with regards to family planning?
Bodily autonomy doesn't just refer to the freedom to have an abortion, it also refers to the freedom from unwanted acts against the body -- including forced pregnancy. For once I think there could be an issue where pro-life and pro-choice supporters can ally, but for some strange reason it seems no one is talking about it. Both sides of the abortion debate have organized homes and counsellors and outreach for women with unwanted pregnancies but if many of these pregnancies are tied to domestic violence then there seems to be more we can do to prevent these -- things other than rolling condoms down bananas or, alternatively, championing abstinence.
Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains guaranteed equality rights -- including sexual equality. This includes the right to reproductive self-determination. Any infringement on that right should be legally considered in violation of the Canadian Charter and therefore a crime. While reproductive coercion is criminalized in Sweden. In Canada there is one reported case of Craig Jaret Hutchinson being charged with aggravated sexual assault in 2006 after poking holes in his girlfriend's condoms in the hopes of impregnating her against her will.
According to CBC News, "in 2009 Hutchinson was found not guilty by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir, who ruled that although Hutchinson's actions were fraudulent and dastardly, they did not constitute a sexual assault." Following a new trial at the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal only two out of three judges agreed that the unprotected sex happened without consent.
In an age where violence against women and sexual assault are not clearly defined, where our notions of consent fail to recognize historical and ongoing reinforcement of patriarchy, there will be room for further subjugation and justifiable violence against women. Instead of being so quick to criticize women who have had unplanned pregnancies we should acknowledge, study and make aware the systemic and historical pressures that lead to such circumstance.
Planned Parenthood has become such a reliable punching bag for social conservatives that it would have been more surprising if former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) didn't include defunding the women's health services provider as a staple of his recent three-point plan to revitalize the GOP. “[W]e are going to push Republican congressional leaders to defund the monstrosity that is Planned Parenthood,” Santorum said in an April fundraising plea, according to Raw Story. “Too many in the GOP want to ignore the millions of innocent lives that have been extinguished by this vile organization. Defunding Planned Parenthood is a winning issue. The polls prove it.” If threatening Planned Parenthood -- and the pap smears, STI screenings, breast exams and contraceptives that comprise 97 percent of its services -- seems somewhat passé, that's because it kind of is. The biggest state push to strip the organization of funds came from Republicans in 2011 and 2012, and while some laws were passed, most have been found unconstitutional by court rulings. The GOP's demonization of Planned Parenthood has been far more unpopular than Santorum suggests, but that didn't stop congressional Republicans from eagerly continuing their crusade to eliminate its federal funding earlier this year with a pair of new bills that haven't moved forward.
The fight against women's reproductive rights continued this year, as it seemingly does every year, with a new slate of highly restrictive anti-abortion bills. A number of states have so far been successful at pioneering harsh new limits on abortion rights that would leave women who need such services in those states -- as well as their partners -- with few or no options. North Dakota led the charge, ushering through the toughest restrictions in the nation with a bill prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. State Republicans have admitted that it will likely set the stage for a bitter court challenge. Arkansas meanwhile passed a ban on abortions after 12 weeks, and Kansas is set to enact a law that has raised concern among abortion rights activists who say the language could lead to an outright abortion ban.
When banning abortions themselves isn't enough, states have also made a point of targeting the doctors and clinics that provide them. Opponents claim the push for harsher restrictions could eliminate abortion access entirely in some states, forcing women in need to face difficult and dangerous choices. Measures in Mississippi and North Dakota have put the single abortion clinics in each of the states at risk of closing. The new regulations claim to ensure safer standards, requiring anyone performing abortions to be an OB-GYN with hospital admitting privileges. But critics argue that the abundance of caution is unnecessary, as procedures very rarely lead to medical emergencies. With the stigmatization of abortion in many of these states often leaving only a few medical professionals who provide abortion services in the first place, opponents also argue that the new rules create an onerous if not impossible task that is intended to force clinics to close. New rules in Virginia are causing similar consternation in the state, and beginning in July, the few clinics serving Alabama will face the same concerns thanks to a newly passed law.
New Mexico state Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R) nearly one-upped Todd Akin earlier this year, when she proposed legislation seeking to make any rape victim who terminated a pregnancy guilty of "tampering with evidence," a third-degree felony. She later attempted to perform damage control, adjusting the language of the bill. It didn't pass.
Some people apparently still believe the best sex education is the kind that includes neither sex nor education. In North Dakota, Arkansas and Texas, Republicans extended their vendetta against Planned Parenthood this year, bringing forth proposals to block the organization's effort to offer comprehensive sex education programs to at-risk teenagers. Lawmakers lofted a variety of arguments against the plan, which would have provided counseling and information about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and -- wait for it -- even abstinence. In Texas, one supporter claimed that it was impossible to entrust Planned Parenthood with sex education duties, because doing so would constitute a "conflict of interest" considering the group's role as an abortion provider. It was taken as a suggestion that she believed Planned Parenthood might miseducate teens in order to get them pregnant so that the the group could then make money off providing them with abortions. The bill hasn't passed yet. Lawmakers in North Dakota offered similar arguments in favor of their version of a similar measure, while Republicans in Arkansas pushed through a bill that both defunds Planned Parenthood and effectively kills a comprehensive sex education program in the state's public high schools. The Arkansas bill also ends a state-funded HIV and STI prevention program, also administered by Planned Parenthood. Critics have called this a terrible idea, partially because Arkansas already has some of the highest teen pregnancy and HIV rates in the nation, and partially because, duh.
While Republicans in a number of states fought comprehensive sex education, GOP lawmakers in Congress poured it on hot and heavy with an aggressive and ill-fated bill seeking to open up more than $550 million in federal grants to programs that teach the "skills and benefits of sexual abstinence as the optimal sexual health behavior for youth." It also encouraged programs that provided an "understanding of how drugs, alcohol, and the irresponsible use of social media can influence sexual decisionmaking and can contribute to risky and often aggressive sexual behavior." Studies have repeatedly shown that this form of education doesn't work and, in fact, increases risky sexual behavior among young adults. As one witty HuffPost commenter quipped, "If you gave every teen in America $550 million, they would still have sex."
The GOP offensive to scale back access to affordable birth control also perked up again in 2013, with Republicans taking most intent aim at an Obamacare contraception mandate that they have repeatedly called an attack on religious freedom. The push back against the measure -- which requires most insurance providers and employers to offer free contraception coverage -- first cropped up on the state level, but in March, a group of House Republicans threw it into the crossfire of budget negotiations when they tacked a measure to repeal the mandate on to a continuing resolution. It was a non-starter.
In the midst of a campaign for governor, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) made an effort to reinstate a state anti-sodomy law that had recently been struck down by the courts. Cuccinelli hoped to use the law -- which technically banned consensual anal and oral sex, for both gay and straight people, despite the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling that found such bans unconstitutional -- in order to prosecute an earlier case. Cucinelli's appeal ultimately failed, but only after his campaign refused to confirm or deny if he himself had committed any of the "crimes against nature" that the law supposedly protected against.
A law determining that sex between gay people is illegal has been on the books in Montana for almost 40 years, despite the fact that it can no longer be enforced due to a state Supreme Court ruling and Lawrence v. Texas. When state lawmakers undertook an effort to repeal the obsolete measure in April, however, not all were willing to take the symbolic step in favor of gay rights. In fact, a total of 38 Republicans voted against the measure, a stand that drew a pointed response from their Democratic colleague, state Rep. Amanda Curtis (D). Curtis even said she was quite tempted to punch one of her Republican colleagues, but it looks like that didn't happen. Watch her explain why she didn't in the video to the left, starting at around the 2:10 mark. And follow her on Facebook here. Despite their resistance, state lawmakers ultimately passed the measure, meaning a bunch of "felons" in the state are about to lose some serious street cred.
When the Texas state Senate made a rare, yet small move to help enhance legal protections for sexually active gay teens in April, one Republican, state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), voted against the measure. In voting no, Schwertner rejected an effort to extend the state's "Romeo and Juliet" law -- which protects teens engaged in consensual sex from being prosecuted for sex crimes -- to gay teens as well. Currently, gay teens who have sex with one another risk felony charges of sexual indecency with a child. A similar law is on the books in Nevada, where the ACLU has announced it is joining a fight against the statute.
In March, a weeklong, student-produced series of events dedicated to sexual safety and awareness at the University of Tennessee emerged as a nemesis of state Republicans. After some griping, they successfully stripped state tax dollars from the "Sex Week" budget, thereby eliminating sex from the entire campus for a week. Wait, no. In fact, despite all the conservative bluster, "Sex Week" kicked off as planned in April, with help from some independent donors who presumably understood that because every week at college is sex week, it's ok to discuss everything "From a Rocky Bottom to a Rocky Top." Well played, Sex Week UT.
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