Unplanned Pregnancy & Domestic Violence: Exploring the Connection

With each passing month I work at the FPA, I gain new knowledge of and insights into the lives of women and teen girls. My learning for this month is related to the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. I am not a stranger to these two facts of life. In my previous work experience, I had many opportunities to work closely with the people and agencies dealing directly with women impacted by both.

I recently met with FPA staff member Kini Tinkham who serves as Program Director of Project Connect. And, as often happens, I learned way more than I expected to.

Project Connect is an FPA-led collaboration of providers and advocates from domestic violence and sexual assault organizations, family planning and school-based health centers, and minority organizations. Now in its third year, Project Connect continues to focus on the goal of creating a coordinated community response to domestic violence and sexual assault, including reproductive coercion.

Here’s where my learning curve banked steeply upward. Reproductive coercion? I knew what the words meant but I didn’t have a full understanding of the scope of the problem and its impact on women’s health. This seemed like a topic worth sharing with our readers. I hope you agree.

I did some homework and I have to say I’m shocked and saddened by what I’ve learned.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines reproductive coercion as “threats or acts of violence against a partner’s reproductive health or reproductive decision-making.”  What does that entail? It can be any or all of the following:

  • forcing your partner to not use a condom during sex
  • interfering with your partner’s birth control, i.e. puncturing condoms or hiding birth control pills
  • threats to go find a new partner who will be willing to get pregnant
  • telling your partner that if she loved you, she would want to have a baby with you
  • forcing your partner to get pregnant against her will

Men forcing their female partners to become pregnant against their will — this certainly challenges the stereotype of women using pregnancy to trap their partner into a relationship. This article from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center does a great job of talking about this.

How common is reproductive coercion?

  • 25% of the more than 3,000 women who participated in a nationwide survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that they had experienced some form of reproductive coercion.
  • A 2009 California study showed that 20% of young women using reproductive health clinics had experienced reproductive coercion.
  • Among young women in abusive relationships, 35% reported experiencing reproductive coercion.

I’m sure you can imagine some of the consequences of reproductive coercion — among them, increased risk of STDs and high rates of unintended pregnancy for the victims. You would be right.

According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, adolescent girls in physically abusive relationships were three times more likely to become pregnancy than non-abused girls.  Another study, published in the  Archives of Family Medicine, found that female victims of intimate partner violence are almost three times as likely to have a sexually transmitted infection as women who have not experienced such violence.

This all puts a whole new spin on what it means to do effective pregnancy and STD prevention work. That’s where Project Connect comes in. Next week, I’ll write about the project in detail and describe how it’s changing the way many health care providers in Maine approach the topic of reproductive coercion with their patients.

~ Nancy

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