Elected Batterers: Abortion Restrictions as Violence Against Women
Last week, the Missouri General Assembly debated House Bill 28. Among other things, this cynical piece of legislation allows pharmacy employees to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, confuses RU-486 with emergency contraception, forces women seeking medical abortions to make – count them — four visits to the clinic, and creates a slew of other absurd requirements for physicians. The bill is an absolute horror show of degrading assumptions and scientifically incorrect statements. Though the bill passed with the legislature’s famous anti-woman gusto, there were many shining moments during floor debate. One of those was when Representative Genise Montecillo (D – 66) said about the bill, “This is just as much about control as rape is about control.” She’s right, and it’s time we start recognizing these attacks on choice for what they really are: violence against women.
Actually, abusers and anti-choice policies (and the politicians who advocate for them) use many of the same oppressive tactics. Just like rape, sexual assault, harassment, and intimate partner violence, laws that limit women’s access to abortion care are all about power and control. They are designed so that state power over a woman’s body supersedes a woman’s own power over her body. It is assumed without question that the ultra-conservative politicians who champion these laws have the right to control women’s bodies – that making laws about women’s reproduction is completely within their professional purview. Violence is used by abusers in much the same way: to take and maintain power and show the victim that the abuser can and will exercise that power. Just as anti-choice politicians believe they have the right to govern women’s bodies, abusers believe they have the right to punish women physically – to keep them in line through bodily force and coercion. In both scenarios, women are deemed stupid children who do not deserve autonomy or control over their own destinies. Why else would they make laws telling us we have to go meet with Jesus-pushing CPC volunteer “counselors” 72 hours before an abortion so that we can really “think about it”?
Just as physical violence (and/or the threat of it) limits women’s ability to participate freely in society, laws restricting abortion access work to ensure that women have no chance of systemic political or economic equality. The reproductive justice movement has long recognized the overlapping oppressions of these types of violence and insisted that they be approached as they intersect, rather than individually. The movement to end violence against women and the pro-choice movement for too long have been acting as if they are challenging separate oppressive forces, when actually, those forces are variations of the same thing.
In fact, research consistently shows that abusers know how to use control over a woman’s reproduction to further control her life. Not only are violence against women and reproductive freedom linked politically and in power dynamics, but as the following statistics show, they are probably most profoundly linked in women’s actual lives. For example, pregnancy puts women at an elevated risk for intimate partner violence, and is associated with poor health outcomes for both mother and child. (There are many theories about why violence often begins or escalates during pregnancy, one of which is that the abuser feels control slipping away and uses violence to regain it. Does that remind you of how we often see an escalation of anti-choice policy proposals when progressives make gains in other areas?) Shockingly, the second leading cause of death of pregnant women in the United States is homicide by intimate partner – it’s more common than dying from preeclampsia or gestational diabetes. Forty percent of abused women report that their pregnancy was unintended, as compared to only 8% of women who report never experiencing abuse. Additionally, a growing body of research is showing that it’s common for abusive men to sabotage birth control or coerce pregnancy as tactics to maintain power and control. For example, women who are abused are more likely to report that their partners refuse to wear condoms (71% versus 43% of women who are not abused). In a study of 474 adolescent mothers on public assistance, 51% reported that their partners sabotaged their birth control. Indeed, these abusive strategies are eerily similar to the anti-choice strategy of taking away access to birth control and abortion for women, especially financially vulnerable women.
I’m not arguing that the oppression of women by anti-choice policies is as traumatic as rape or interpersonal violence on an individual level. Of course it isn’t. I’m also not trying to suggest that all abusers are male and all victims female (statistically speaking, these are the most “convenient” pronouns to use and make sense for this argument). But when Rep. Montecillo pointed out that these extremist anti-choice policies are about control over women in the same way that rape is about control, it struck a chord. These ultra-conservative politicians who believe they are entitled to controlling women’s bodies on a meta-scale are not breaking the law the way that batterers are, but they seem to be sharing the same rulebook: give women little to no control over their reproductive decisions (politician: lack of access to birth control and education; abuser: birth control sabotage); coerce women into having children (politician: lack of abortion access; abuser: pregnancy outcome coercion); and then leave them without resources or assistance when the children are born (politician: defund state and federal assistance programs and cut back on education funding; abuser: continue abuse and consider inflicting on children as well).
Also essential to the rulebook is knowing how to shame women so that they don’t talk about having had abortions or being abused and/or raped. Actually, our patriarchal culture is truly expert when it comes to shaming women – if it weren’t so harmful, it would be a marvel to witness. Doesn’t matter if you’re too fat, too skinny, don’t work, work too hard, don’t sleep with men, sleep with too many men, don’t wear make-up, talk too loud, have kids, don’t have kids, don’t make enough money, make too much money – shame on you all the same! The stigmas of having been abused or raped and that of having had an abortion are connected. Just as people ask survivors what they were wearing, why they were drinking, why they didn’t fight harder, and why they didn’t “just leave,” women who have had abortions are told they are selfish, looking for the “easy way out,” called sluts, and made to think they are damaged for life. The messages and outcomes are strikingly similar: it’s all your fault, feel bad about it, and now shut up about it.
We have all probably been unwitting participants in this type of shaming at some point in our lives, but not many of us are as skilled at the strategic use of shame as batterers and anti-choice politicians. Batterers use it to manipulate their victims into self-loathing, self-doubt, and silence. Anti-choice politicians use inflammatory language, they fabricate “post-abortion syndrome,” they tell stories about disabled children who would’ve been aborted in “pro-choice” hands, they literally (and theatrically) weep for “the unborn,” they invent accusations of black genocide, and they spread lies about emergency contraception being abortion. They wag their moral-authority fingers at women: shame, shame, shame! This shame makes the one-third of American women who’ve had abortions stay silent and divided. It creates an environment where these (predominantly white, male) voices are allowed to control the entire debate. They are allowed to control women’s movements (when they go to the doctor and for what). They are allowed to write propaganda that women are forced to listen to in the privacy of their doctor’s office. They are allowed to decide at what income-level women can receive certain types of reproductive care (Hyde Amendment and similar state laws). They are allowed to keep women in poverty or force them into it through coerced motherhood. They are even allowed to endanger women’s health by putting funding on the chopping block and barring access to comprehensive sexual education. Yes, when it comes to the strategic rhetorical infliction of shame on women, nothing and no one beats anti-choice lawmakers and their policies.
When I was marching at a Take Back the Night rally in St. Louis last week, I wasn’t only thinking about men and women who experience violence at the hands of family members, loved ones, or community members. I was also thinking about the strategic and systematic chipping away at women’s control over their reproduction by cultural conservatives. As strategic as the way a batterer places bruises on a woman’s body so they don’t show when she goes out in public. As systematic as beating her every time she speaks up for herself until she no longer makes the mistake of doing that. Anti-choice policies are violence against women. We should be marching not only for our homes and our streets to be free from violence, but also our legislative bodies and the laws they produce. Let’s start by combining some slogans: “Pro-Choice: Until the Violence Stops.”
Paige Sweet is the Political & Field Organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. She has served as a volunteer advocate for abused women and a sexual assault peer educator. Her current project with NARAL focuses on trying to secure access to emergency contraception for victims of rape in Missouri hospitals.