What Is Reproductive Coercion?
You could hear a collective gasp when Britney Spears revealed in June 2021 that, under control of her conservatorship, she wasn't allowed to remove her IUD. We knew her money and career were being puppeteered by a team led by her father, Jamie Spears, but her uterus was too?
A situation like Spears', and any time someone's reproductive system is being controlled, is called reproductive coercion–and it's abuse. "Reproductive coercion is another form of violence," said Emiliana Guereca, founder of Women's March Action. "It's intimate partner violence when the partner exerts power and threatens to coerce and influence the partner's decisions on reproductive health."
'For the abuser, it may not be about having a baby or not—it's actually about having control over another in a relationship and making all decisions for them.'
In addition to Spears, there's another high-profile case of reproductive coercion making waves: the current bill SB8 that recently took effect in Texas, which bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. "Forcing women to carry babies to term is reproductive coercion," said Guereca.
While reproductive coercion can take on many forms, oftentimes it involves interfering with birth control methods, attempts to get a female partner pregnant against her will, or controlling outcomes of a pregnancy. "For the abuser, it may not be about having a baby or not—it's actually about having control over another in a relationship and making all decisions for them," said Jessica Steinman, a licensed sex addiction and family therapist at Westwind Recovery in Los Angeles.
There's nothing new about this type of domestic abuse, but reproductive coercion was only defined as a concept in 2010, in a study by Elizabeth Miller, M.D. Since it's at the forefront of headlines—the Supreme Court—let's break down everything you need to know about reproductive coercion.
What are common forms of reproductive coercion?
Reproductive coercion can be any situation in which birth control is being sabotaged or pregnancies are being controlled, including:
- Intentionally breaking condoms by poking holes or making rips in them.
- Taking condoms off during sex without the female partner knowing.
- Hiding or destroying birth control pills or other forms of contraception.
- Not pulling out when that had been agreed on by both partners.
- Coercing a partner to have unprotected sex.
- Withholding finances for purchasing birth control.
- Attempting to force or convince a pregnant woman to have an abortion against her will.
- Forcing a woman to get pregnant by threatening or carrying out acts of violence.
- Purposefully trying to pass on a sexually transmitted disease.
- Threatening to end or leave a relationship if a partner does not get pregnant or does not terminate a pregnancy.
Can cis men be victims of reproductive coercion? "Men can absolutely be victims in reproductive coercion," said Steinman. "It's just not as common." Examples of reproductive manipulation toward males include female partners damaging condoms, withholding or not taking their birth control pills and removing IUDs or changing their contraception method without telling the male partner.
How common is reproductive coercion?
Like most forms of domestic abuse, reproductive coercion is likely underreported, especially since some may not realize it's abuse. As a result, it's probably more common than we think. As many as 1 in 4 women will experience some form of reproductive coercion in their lifetime, with young women being particularly susceptible, according to a report in the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health. Another study published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that nearly 1 in 8 sexually active females between the ages of 14 and 19 had experienced reproductive coercion in the last three months alone.
A 2012 study from Planned Parenthood found that among family planning clinic clients, 15 percent of female clients with a history of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence reported birth control sabotage from a partner.
"If a partner tries to control your reproductive rights or violates agreements that you have about reproduction, this is a warning sign to leave the relationship," said Elizabeth Jeglic, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC, and sexual violence prevention researcher. Unfortunately, there are no laws that explicitly consider many forms of reproductive coercion illegal. However, depending on the nature of the abusive situation, specific cases could be considered assault (purposefully giving someone an STD) or fraud (sabotaging birth control).
What should you do if you are a victim of reproductive coercion, or you suspect a friend is?
According to Steinman, if someone realizes they may be a victim of reproductive coercion, the first step is to talk to a family member, friend, therapist or someone they trust to figure out a safety plan. Then, see a doctor for help with reproductive planning, contraceptive methods, and, in the case of suspected STI transferring, getting tested.
'It is important they have a chance to feel empowered and be a part of changing the behavior'
"If you're concerned that someone you are close to may be experiencing this, it is important to go slow and take it one step at a time with them," said Steinman. Remember, reproductive coercion is a form of abuse, and if the victim doesn't see themselves in an abusive situation, they may become defensive and turn away from you and the help you want to give them. "It is important they have a chance to feel empowered and be a part of changing the behavior and taking the power back in the situation," said Steinman.
If you suspect your partner is trying to control your reproductive choices, Jeglic emphasized the importance of bringing your own birth control—including long-term birth control that cannot be tampered with, like an IUD—and having a backup birth control option, like emergency contraception, if you do not want to get pregnant. You can also contact a domestic violence advocate (find one in your state here) for support.