Reports of abuse involving reproductive coercion — actions that prevent someone from making crucial decisions about their body and reproductive health — nearly doubled in the yearlong period after Roe v. Wade was overturned, according to new data from the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH).
“If you cannot make these decisions, it could mean unfortunately that you have to stay in an abusive situation longer than you want to,” Marium Durrani, the vice president of public policy at the NDVH, told The 19th. “It could impact your escape, it could mean that potentially you’re forced to have a child with someone you don’t want to have a child with.”
Durrani explained that reproductive coercion can take the form of any situation in which one partner is exerting power over another in a way that impacts their reproductive health: forcing someone to engage in sexual activity, refusing to use contraception, restricting a partner from seeing a health care provider, telling a partner they are not allowed to receive abortion care.
“A lot more people are now citing some sort of reproductive issue as part of their experience [with domestic abuse],” Durrani said. “Dobbs is having a huge impact on not only all individuals around the country, but survivors in particular.”
The hotline reported that in the year before the Dobbs decision — from late June 2021 to the end of May 2022 — 1,230 of the people who contacted the hotline said they experienced reproductive coercion or mentioned abuse. The number of people saying so nearly doubled — to 2,442 — for the same period a year later.
With increased limitations on access to reproductive health care – and especially abortion care — in the 18 months since the Dobbs ruling, those experiencing domestic violence are facing a reality where an inability to receive this care is also further endangering their lives and safety.
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That increase is especially alarming, experts say, because being pregnant increases a person’s risk of being hurt — or killed — by an intimate partner.
Homicide is the leading cause of death of people who are pregnant or have given birth within a year in the United States, surpassing dangerous complications such as eclampsia and hemorrhage. There were 189 known pregnancy-associated homicides in 2020. Among those deaths, 81 percent involved firearms, 55 percent of victims were Black women, and 45 percent of victims were under the age of 24. Furthermore, 54 percent of these homicides occurred when the victim was pregnant, and the remaining 46 percent occurred during the first year after a woman had given birth.
A 2020 study found that being pregnant or postpartum increases a person’s risk of homicide by 35 percent compared to those of reproductive age who are not pregnant or postpartum; 55 percent of those homicides occurred in the home and are thus classified as domestic violence.
Sabrina Talukder, the director of the Women’s Initiative at the progressive think tank the Center for American Progress, said that during her six years as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, she routinely had pregnant clients whose partners threatened to report them to police for abuse of an unborn child if they didn’t comply with some demand. Post-Dobbs, she wonders how many more pregnant people now find themselves facing threats of criminalization at the hands of abusers — threats only compounded as a result of the number of states that have banned abortion outright.
“We are really dealing with the criminalization of healthcare and the ability of someone to travel to get an abortion, to ask their friends for help, let alone actually get an abortion — these are now all points of leverage for an abuser,” Talukder said.
Intimate partner violence is a factor in 64 percent of all homicides of pregnant and postpartum people, and more than half of all homicides committed against pregnant and postpartum people occur in the person’s own home. Black women — who are already disproportionately impacted by restrictions on abortion access — are also disproportionately impacted by the threat of intimate partner homicide among pregnant women.
“When we’re thinking about the people who are most impacted [by the relationship between the Dobbs ruling and domestic violence], we are talking about people who have marginalized identities, who are maybe living somewhere rural, who don’t have access to financial resources, who now don’t have access to reproductive healthcare,” Durrani said. And she stressed the way that these impacts become compounded — the disproportionate threat of lack of reproductive healthcare and threat of intimate partner homicide and maternal mortality and economic realities all intersect in ways that mean marginalized pregnant people may not have the funds or freedom to easily access abortion care and face increased threats to their and their children’s lives as a result.
Talukder adds that Black women and pregnant people from other marginalized backgrounds who face a complicated history with the criminal justice system face increased threats to their safety as a result of restrictions on abortion access as well; the way in which abortion access has been criminalized in many states means that accessing a form of health care that might decrease the risk of dying as a result of domestic violence using firearms can now be weaponized against the very person seeking this care. “When anything is criminalized, it can serve as a tool of leverage against a survivor. It could now open a warrant, threaten your immigration status, impact your child support you receive for your kids, even your access to food and water. Nothing is more powerful than the criminal legal system because nothing is scarier.” And those from marginalized backgrounds have frequently seen firsthand how this system can be used to cause further harm to them, which then can reinforce the often fatal cycle of abuse.
Kelie Sturgis, the chief operations officer at Project:Peacemakers, a domestic violence victims’ advocacy agency in Los Angeles, said that because of this reality for marginalized pregnant domestic violence victims in particular, abortion access can be nothing short of a lifeline for those in domestic violence situations. Being in California, where abortion access remains legal and accessible, she has witnessed countless times what being able to receive abortion care has meant for a domestic violence survivor to be able to live safely and get away from an abuser.
“You receive clients who come in and say, ‘I am carrying this child and I can’t — I just can’t bring another child into this relationship and continue to be abused.’ And here, it’s easy for them to go ahead and get that abortion because of that reason,” Sturgis said.
It’s an option not available to all survivors, though – and being pregnant and without the option of abortion makes things even harder, especially if their partner is their source of health insurance — of critical importance during a pregnancy — and if they are dependent on their partner financially. It’s why, Sturgis said, for survivors, abortion access “means everything.” Countless pregnant people have told Sturgis about their fear that if they brought a child into an abusive relationship, their abuser would also turn that abuse on their child.
The Supreme Court is hearing a case next month that may further change the risk factors that pregnant people in abusive relationships face: United States v. Rahimi is about whether or not the federal law barring individuals who have a standing domestic violence restraining order against them from possessing guns is constitutional.
Experts point to the links between pregnancy, abuse and death by gun violence, as well as the rise in calls to the hotline in the year after the Dobbs decision, as critical context about the stakes in the Rahimi case.
Talukder said that now that the Supreme Court is about to decide whether those who are under domestic violence restraining orders — which require a preponderance of evidence to be granted by a judge in a civil court — have the right to own firearms, it is impossible to isolate what is currently at play with Rahimi with what the Court already decided in Dobbs. “The bigger issue now is why the Supreme Court decides who gets to have rights in this country.”
With the documented spike in calls already to the NDVH citing reproductive coercion post-Dobbs, Durrani emphasized that it is critical to remember that Dobbs and Rahimi both exist in a landscape where Supreme Court rulings stand to impact “the ecosystem of what survivors have available to them, the world that they live in to try to get safe. When you take away any of those options, then you put survivors in much more dangerous situations.”