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'He Thought a Baby Would Keep Me in His Life Forever': When Partner Abuse Isn't a Bruise But a Pregnant Belly

Intimate partner violence doesn't always show up in police photos as swollen bruises. Instead, the evidence might be the victim's pregnant belly.

Janey (not her real name) was 19 when she fell "head over heels" for a guy six years her senior.

He moved in just weeks after their first date, which was before she learned about the cheating. When she confronted him, repeatedly, he raped her, repeatedly. When she told him to move out, he threatened her with more violence. Meanwhile, condoms: not happening. Hormonal birth control like the Pill, she says, made her sick.  

"The first time I got pregnant against my will, I had the baby," she says. Along with several STDs. (He'd been her only partner.) After a stint in jail for violating an ex's order of protection, he was back, promising never to hurt her, gushing about family happiness.

The -- yes -- second pregnancy occurred when she'd run out of money for emergency contraception, having purchased it more than 10 times before from her college nurse. He refused to help her pay for an abortion. "He thought another baby would keep me in his life forever," Janey says.  

Thankfully, he was wrong. She finally secured an order of protection; he wound up back in jail for separate reasons. Janey graduated from college, has a good job and now lives in Arizona with two healthy children.  

Media attention to the Chris Brown-Rihanna saga, which technically ended Monday when Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault, certainly got people talking -- for better or for worse -- about teen dating abuse and intimate partner violence.

But many violence and public-health experts agree that at least one major issue was, and has for too long remained, missing from that conversation. For girls like Janey, as you can see, partner violence doesn't show up in police photos as swollen bruises. Instead, the evidence might be their swollen, pregnant bellies. 

Sexual coercion and "reproductive control," including contraceptive sabotage, are a common, and devastating, facet of dating and domestic abuse. A growing number of studies, experts and young women themselves are testifying to boyfriends demanding unprotected sex, lying about "pulling out," hiding or destroying birth control -- flushing pills down the toilet, say -- and preventing (or, in some cases, forcing) abortion.

The implications for young women's and public health are profound, among them unintended pregnancy, miscarriage and STDs, including HIV. (Some STDs are cured easily -- if tested for and treated -- while others can lead to chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, even infertility.) While this problem is not brand-new, only now are we starting to understand its scope — and, ideally, starting to learn from its consequences. 

"Partner violence is not just about hitting," says Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, noting how long it took to raise awareness that "partner violence" occurs at all. Now another alarm must be sounded, she says:  "Sexual coercion is the most secretive part."  

Secretive, and pervasive. In what is said to be the first study in adolescent health literature "to document the role of abusive partners in promoting teen pregnancy," Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, found that among 61 racially and ethnically diverse girls in Boston's poorest neighborhoods, 53 were in were in abusive and sexually active relationships at the time they were interviewed -- and 26 percent of them said their partners were "actively trying to get them pregnant by manipulating condom use, sabotaging birth control," or simply sweet-talking them about "making beautiful babies" together. Several reported hiding their birth control from their boyfriends; one girl told researchers her boyfriend "tried to get me pregnant on purpose, and then made me have an abortion."  

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