The XX Factor

New Research on Coerced Pregnancy Sheds Light on Recent Abortion Debates

Pregnancy coercion is a story I started covering years ago for RH Reality Check , when the first preliminary research about it started to trickle out.  The preliminary research was both upsetting and fascinating, because it suggested that a shocking percentage of unintended pregnancies were caused by abusive men sabotaging contraception, using pregnancy as a weapon to control their partners. Obviously, many other researchers thought it as fascinating as I did, because now a number of studies are coming out with similar findings, including one from the National Domestic Violence Hotline that 1 in 4 women calling the hotline had experienced some form of pregnancy coercion.

This new data about pregnancy coercion should be kept in mind as recent legislative efforts have brought the links between unintended pregnancy, abortion, and violence against women into the mainstream discourse, when usually those links are only discussed within the reproductive rights community. (Though I have seen the very rare occasion where anti-choicers look at the link in order to portray it in a positive light.)  The most obvious example is the furor over HR 3, which would have restricted insurance coverage of rape-caused abortions to cases of “forcible rape.”  But with or without the term “forcible” in the bill, the definition of “rape” just doesn’t take into account the wide array of ways women get pregnant against their will because of domestic or sexual violence. If a wife-beater flushes his wife’s pills down the toilet and gets her pregnant in order to trap her in an abusive relationship, putting obstacles between that woman and her abortion is a form of siding with the abuser.

Of course, in that case, it’s probably unintentional siding with the abuser.  Not so with this most recent hell that’s emerged in South Dakota. As reported by Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones , House Bill 1171—which got out of committee with a 9-to-3 vote—expands the “justifiable homicide” defense to the killing of a person who is going to kill a fetus inside yourself or a family member.  Since women, pregnant or not, already have a right to protect themselves against murderers, the real impact of this bill is that it would create a loophole where men could shoot doctors who are trying to perform requested abortions on their wives or girlfriends. I’m unclear if it would allow men to kill women who request the abortion, though as it’s written , it seems possible to this non-lawyer that a wife batterer who kills his wife if she tries to get an abortion may be able to use the defense.

Either way, besides just being an open invitation to domestic terrorists to shoot abortion doctors (at least, if someone in your family wants an abortion), this is a valentine to domestic abusers who use pregnancy to control their victims, by suggesting that they’re within their rights to use violence against anyone who would stand between them and forcing childbirth on their wives. Even if it was just a hypothetical problem, this South Dakota bill would be chilling.  But it’s even more disturbing when you realize it’s being debated in the real world, where forced childbirth and domestic violence often go hand in hand.