Project Connect: Unplanned Pregnancy Through a Domestic Violence Lens

Last week, I wrote about reproductive coercion and the impact it has on women’s health. I mentioned that knowing about this issue can change the way we approach STD and pregnancy prevention work. As promised, here’s a follow-up article about Project Connect: A Coordinated Public Health Initiative to Prevent Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Project Connect has lots of moving parts and I think all of them are terribly exciting.  For me, the most wonderful thing about this project is the way it approaches domestic and sexual violence as reproductive health issues.  The best way to explain what I mean is to give you a couple of scenarios.

Think about a family planning client who comes in every few months or so for a pregnancy test. She always says she hopes the test is negative and she always leaves the clinic with a birth control method. This young woman clearly doesn’t want to get pregnant and she has an effective method of birth control, but she comes in repeatedly to get tested.

Now, consider the student who visits her high school health center quite regularly for chlamydia testing — and she always tests positive. She has access to medicine for her infection and condoms to prevent another case of chlamydia. This student knows how to prevent a recurring infection yet she continues to test positive for it.

In both of these cases, most of us tend to focus on the female clients’ actions. Why isn’t she using her birth control properly to avoid so many pregnancy scares? Why doesn’t she use condoms with her partner and talk with him about her infection so he can get tested and treated as well?

What happens when we look at these situations through the lens of intimate partner violence and reproductive coercion. Our focus shifts and we start asking a different set of questions. Questions like — Are either of these women in abusive relationships? Is it possible that they are experiencing reproductive coercion at the hands of their partners? How can we be helpful to them beyond offering testing and condoms and birth control?

Helping Maine providers of reproductive health care see through that lens is what Project Connect is all about. Now in its third year, Project Connect is one of only 10 projects around the country selected  for Office of Women’s Health funding through Futures without Violence. The project aims to build a coordinated system with long-term capacity for training Maine health care providers, especially family planning and school-based health center staff, to identify and respond to intimate partner violence, sexual assault and reproductive coercion.

Some Project Connect activities in Maine include:

  • Sending a handful of people to a ‘train the trainer’ workshop. These people will offer regional trainings around Maine to help health care providers develop skills for assessing whether their clients are experiencing reproductive coercion.
  • A statewide training for school-based health center staff on the issue of reproductive coercion.
  • E-learning opportunities for health care providers in Maine, with a goal of having 500 providers take part in online training sessions.
  • Training in reproductive health issues for domestic violence and sexual assault advocates throughout Maine.
  • Strengthening the relationships between health centers and organizations working in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault, in order to create a ‘warm’ referral to provide better support and safety planning for women and teens experiencing sexual coercion.
  • A pilot program with several school-based health centers in Maine, to increase their ability to assess for and support teens experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual assault and/or reproductive coercion and to develop referral strategies, policies and procedures relative to these issues.
  • One domestic violence program will implement a new reproductive health assessment and coercion assessment with a local family planning program and develop a referral procedure. This will serve as a model for other programs throughout the state.

As I mentioned earlier, Project Connect has many components. It’s ambitious in scope and designed to make a difference for the long term. Just one more way the FPA is working to support the reproductive health care needs of Maine’s women and teens.

Please view and share this terrific video on the topic.

~ Nancy

If you need support around issues of domestic violence, sexual assault or reproductive coercion, check out the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence or the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Handouts about reproductive coercion for women and for teens are available as PDF’s on the FPA website.

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