What Is Reproductive Coercion?
Reproductive coercion is the act of deliberately preventing another person from taking control of their own fertility and reproductive health. It’s a form of intimate partner violence (IPV) that is typically achieved using emotional manipulation, but can sometimes involve physical violence as well. The most common forms of reproductive coercion include:
- Pressuring someone into pregnancy
- Refusing to use contraception or prohibiting someone else from using it
- Engaging in contraceptive sabotage—covertly removing a condom during sex without the partner’s consent (known as “stealthing”), tampering with someone’s birth control to render it ineffective, or hiding or throwing away someone’s birth control
- Lying about one’s own use of contraception in an effort to get pregnant without the consent of the partner who believes they’re having protected sex
- Coercing someone to continue an unwanted pregnancy
- Forcing someone to terminate a wanted pregnancy
- Forcing someone to have an unwanted sterilization
How Common Is This Experience?
According to a UNFPA report published in February 2020, only 55% of women can make their own choices regarding their reproductive health and rights. Moreover, according to a British Medical Journal study, one in four women experiences reproductive coercion over their lifetime. In the U.S., Black and multiracial women and women who are young, single, and poor are most at risk of experiencing reproductive coercion.
Countries with rigid cultural and social structures often allow for older female relatives, in particular, to exert control over younger couples’ family sizes. Studies from Cote d’Ivoire, India, and Jordan reveal how far in-laws will sometimes go to influence younger couples’ pregnancy outcomes. For instance, in rural Cote d’Ivoire, women reported that their in-laws pressured their husbands to do the following if they didn’t become pregnant:
- Prohibit them from leaving the house
- Prevent them from eating
- Have a baby with someone else
- Leave them
- Hurt them
In the U.S., adolescent girls and young women are also particularly vulnerable to reproductive coercion, as revealed in a study from 2017 that found that 20% of teenage girls of high school age reported experiencing reproductive coercion. Another study from 2011 involved 64 teenage girls living in low-income urban areas who sought care at reproductive health clinics. The study explored the types of behaviors these girls were experiencing. Over half of the girls reported unwanted and unprotected intercourse. A quarter of the girls revealed that they could not speak to their partners about condom use due to fear of physical or emotional abuse, including questions of their fidelity should they request that their partners use condoms.
Although reproductive coercion is generally considered to be control of women’s bodily autonomy by men, men can also be victims of this behavior. In 2011, the CDC released the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, a U.S. population-based survey that included data on the national prevalence of IPV, sexual violence, and stalking among men and women. The survey found that approximately 11.7 million men have experienced reproductive coercion. That equates to about 10% of men in the U.S. reporting they had a previous female partner who attempted to stop them from using condoms or tried to get pregnant against their wishes.
How Can We Support Women?
Local health and women’s organizations around the world—including here in the United States—must continue providing essential comprehensive reproductive health services. Health care providers should routinely screen women and adolescent girls for reproductive coercion, incorporating it into intimate partner violence screening. Increasing awareness, training, and education among providers can make them better equipped to notice when their patients are experiencing reproductive coercion, allowing them to refer their patients to counselors, social workers, or other professionals who can help.