In the United States, it’s illegal to force a woman to take an abortion pill against her will. Every once in a while, charges will be brought against a man for tricking his partner into taking abortion-inducing drugs, a crime that can lead to decades in prison.
But what about the women who are forced into other reproductive health outcomes against their will? Although the anti-choice community frequently pushes to strengthen the legal protections against “coerced abortion,” it’s not currently against U.S. law to tamper with a woman’s birth control to try to trick her into getting pregnant. Domestic violence prevention advocates say this type of abuse is rampant, and should be punished more seriously in the eyes of the law.
The official term for this type of abuse is “reproductive coercion” — and it can encompass anything from poking holes in a condom without a woman’s knowledge, to hiding her birth control pills, to making her feel guilty about not wanting to have a baby, to trying to yank out her intrauterine device (IUD). If a woman does become pregnant, the coercion can either take the form of pressuring her to have an abortion when she wants a child, or pressuring her to continue an unwanted pregnancy when she wants an abortion.
According to a 2010 study into the issue, as many as 15 percent of low-income women who rely on public family planning clinics experience this type of tampering with their birth control. And it’s a particular prevalent aspect of abusive relationships — a clear sign that a man is attempting to control and manipulate his partner’s body. In fact, at the beginning of this year, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a new policy statement recommending more widespread screening for reproductive coercion. “We want to make sure that health care providers are aware that this is something that does go on and that it’s a form of abuse,” one of the experts who helped write the new recommendations explained at the time.
Domestic violence prevention advocates argue that reproductive coercion should fit under the criminal statutes regarding domestic abuse and rape. It’s possible to make the legal case that it constitutes an act of violence — but, as the Daily Beast reports, one of the central roadblocks to prosecuting reproductive coercion is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a robust definition of consent.
That’s not the case in every country. Last month, Canada’s highest court heard a case from a man who had deliberately punctured a condom to get his girlfriend pregnant and convince her not to leave him. But the reason Canada was able to prosecute that case is because its definition of consent includes effective contraception — the man’s girlfriend consented to sexual intercourse, but that consent was dependent upon the use of birth control, so sabotaging the condom violated her consent. In the United States, the legal definition of consent is more generalized. The Daily Beast points out that U.S. courts are less likely to consider what happened between two consenting adults after they both agreed to engage in sexual activity.
Unfortunately, the women who experience reproductive coercion aren’t necessarily the only example of Americans who are forced to be pregnant against their will. Record-breaking numbers of state-level abortion restrictions have created a world in which many women must carry an unwanted pregnancy for longer than they would prefer. For instance, even though nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their desire to have an abortion when they first approach a doctor, 26 states require them to wait at least 24 hours before having the procedure anyway. In South Dakota, that wait can stretch on for up to six days. And low-income women, who typically have to delay having an abortion while they save up the money for it, often run out of time and go on to have unintended births. The women who end up giving birth against their will are more likely to slip deeper into poverty and struggle with long-term mental health issues.