Huffpost Women
Julie Mannell Headshot

One Issue Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers Might Agree On

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"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.

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