Making reproductive coercion a crime

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.

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