'He Got Me Pregnant to Trap Me': How to Help Women Escape Men Who Force Them into Pregnancy

Reproductive coercion involves a complex interplay of violence, mental abuse, pregnancy and sexual assault -- fortunately, simple front-line intervention can make a difference.

We were having sex and I reached down and slipped the condom right off and she never knew it.

He told me that if I wanted to go to nursing school, I had better be pregnant with his baby.

He admitted to me and the psychologist [that] he intentionally got me pregnant in order to trap me.

The above are excerpts from records of recent calls, by both abused and abuser, to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, where staffers have begun to screen for an increasingly evident phenomenon — "reproductive coercion." It's a form of intimate partner violence (IPV) that upends at least two common misconceptions: first, that domestic violence is only about hitting; and second, that only women scheme to use pregnancy as a “trap.” (And also a third: that we already know everything we need to about the causes of unwanted pregnancy.)

As documented in recent studies, and covered previously on AlterNet, reproductive coercion can take many forms: a male partner demanding unprotected sex; failing to pull out; sabotaging birth control (hiding pills, damaging condoms); and everything from verbal intimidation and threats to rape. Among the consequences are unwanted pregnancies, STDs and further violence, including threats along the lines of “I’ll kill you if you have an abortion.” In one recent study of 71 women aged 18-49 with a history of IPV, 74 percent reported having experienced some form of reproductive coercion; in another, a full 20 percent of visitors to California health clinics -- sexually active, but with or without IPV histories -- said they’d experienced reproductive coercion, and 15 percent, birth control sabotage.

That’s the bad news. But now, a new pilot study led by researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine and published in the current issue of the journal Contraception, suggests that -- even with this complex interplay of violence, mental abuse, pregnancy and sexual assault -- simple front-line intervention can make a difference.

In the study, female patients at two family planning clinics in northern California were asked whether their partners had attempted to force them to become pregnant. (Two other clinics, for comparison, provided only standard domestic violence and sexual assault screening, without the reproductive coercion angle.) Patients were asked a variety of questions, including: “Does your partner mess with your birth control?” and “Has your partner ever hurt you physically because you didn’t agree to become pregnant?”

Where appropriate, staffers went on to discuss harm-reduction strategies -- injectable birth control, for one -- and other safety resources. Result: among those who had experienced IPV and reproductive coercion, the odds that the coercion would continue after such questioning (called a “brief intervention”) were reduced by a massive 70 percent. These women were also 60 percent more likely to report having ended a relationship with a partner because they felt unsafe or the relationship unhealthy.

The study’s authors called these results a first step toward a harm-reduction protocol for reducing women’s risk of becoming pregnant by abusive partners. “The concept of reproductive coercion, and this new intervention, represent a paradigm shift in how we can help our patients reduce their risk of unintended pregnancy along with that of physical and sexual violence,” said Elizabeth Miller, a co-author of the new study and a pioneering researcher on reproductive coercion.

Just think how many women have already visited health clinics or called hotlines with their experiences of birth control sabotage or other reproductive abuse this close to being detected. Reproductive coercion has for so long stayed under the radar, with sometimes its only visible symptom a pregnancy we may rush to attribute to moral failure, cluelessness, or other societal ills. How promising it is to imagine that we could tease it out, and in certain cases even prevent it, with a simple well-phrased question posed to a woman who is, in some way, already seeking help.

"There is a strong, indisputable link between domestic and dating violence and unintended pregnancy. This study is extremely important because it identifies an effective solution that can be implemented relatively easily," said study co-author Rebecca Levenson of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. "We need to build on these results by making this intervention the norm in health care settings throughout the nation as quickly as possible."

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