Should tampering with someone’s birth control to get her pregnant against her will be a crime? It’s a question that hasn’t been considered much in legal circles, in no small part because, until recently, there wasn’t any evidence that contraception tampering is a widespread problem. But researchers who study domestic violence have discovered how common it is for men who are abusing and controlling their partners to destroy or forbid contraception to gain more control. A quarter of women who called the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2010 reported that their partners were trying to force pregnancy on them in this way. Another 2010 study found that 15 percent of women visiting family planning clinics reported some kind of reproductive coercion.
So, yes, reproductive coercion is a problem, but are there legal remedies for it? Keli Goff of the Daily Beast looks into that question, inspired by recent events in Canada. “The issue gained newfound attention last month,” Goff writes, “when the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case of a man who was sentenced to jail time for admitting that he poked holes in condoms to get his girlfriend pregnant in an effort to keep her from ending their relationship.” The Nova Scotia court found the man guilty of sexual assault because the woman in question did not consent to be impregnated, even if she did consent to have sex. But is a sexual-assault charge the best way to pursue men who do similar things in the U.S.? Shane Trawick argues in the California Law Review that it’s probably not a great idea to lump condom-hole-punchers in with rapists. Instead, Trawick makes the case that states should pass laws explicitly banning birth control sabotage as a separate crime with its own penalties. He suggests a model law that reads in part that “a person is guilty of the crime of reproductive coercion” if he or she “knowingly or recklessly tampers with a chemical or barrier contraceptive device, against his or her sexual partner’s will, with the specific intent of inducing pregnancy.” He also suggests charging men who claim they will pull out but then don’t.
Obviously, in many cases, it would be hard to prove that someone knowingly sabotaged your birth control. But in cases in which the saboteur implicates himself or there’s physical evidence of the sabotage, making reproductive coercion a crime in and of itself could be quite valuable. In domestic violence cases, it’s one more charge that could be levied against an abuser, which would increase the criminal penalties an abuser faces. Also, as Trawick argues, making it a crime would help raise awareness in the public that reproductive coercion exists and that it’s a form of domestic violence. Criminalizing it would also make it easier for women who experience sabotage to make their case if they choose to sue for damages.
The statute that Trawick proposes is notable because of how gender-neutral it is, as well. As Goff notes in her Daily Beast piece, “the possibility exists that should laws end up on the books to make reproductive coercion a crime, just as many women could end up in jail as men.” There’s no evidence to suggest that women commit reproductive coercion nearly as often as men do, but there are certainly some women out there trying to tie someone down by poking holes in his condoms. (However, as the proposed law only covers tampering with contraception or deliberately ejaculating in someone who hasn’t consented, it’s unlikely women who don’t take a pill or put in a diaphragm could be prosecuted, even if they claim to be doing either.) All the more reason to pass laws banning reproductive coercion. Trying to force someone into parenthood against their will is sleazy, immoral behavior regardless of gender, and it’s appropriate for the law to hold people who do it accountable for their actions.