Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pregnancy and Abuse

When thinking about teen pregnancy, most people think about preventing it. That debate usually centers on sexual education and what a sex ed curriculum should contain. Not long ago, the media took notice of some teenage girls who actually wanted to be pregnant. But very rarely do we hear about teenage boys who want to get their girlfriends pregnant, with or without their consent.

Leyla W. couldn't figure out where her birth control pills kept going. One day a few tablets would be missing; the next, the whole container. Her then-boyfriend shrugged and said he hadn’t seen them. She believed him—until she found them in his drawer. When she confronted him, he hit her. "That was his way of shutting me up," says Leyla, who is in her mid-20s and living in Northern California. (For her safety, Leyla wishes to withhold her last name and hometown.) He also raped her and, most days, left her locked in a bedroom with a bit of food and water while he went to work. (A roommate took pity and let her out until he came home.) Thanks to the missed pills, she got pregnant twice, the second time deciding against abortion.
Leyla's story turns a modern fable on its head: that of the woman—call her the femme fertile—who conspires to get pregnant, perhaps by "forgetting" to take her birth control pills, as a way to “trap a man” and force marriage—or at least keep him in her life. In reality, experts researchers on dating violence and unintended pregnancy say, it’s Leyla's version of that story is all too common. Two new studies have quantified what advocates for young women’s health have observed for years: the striking frequency with which it is in fact young men who try to force their partners to get pregnant. Their goal: not to settle down as family men but rather to exert what is perhaps the most intimate, and lasting, form of control. (“Control” may also include attempts to force both pregnancy and abortion, even in the same relationship.) Together with earlier small-scale studies and reports by those in the field, the new figures help fill out the picture of a long-known, but under-addressed, phenomenon now referred to as "reproductive coercion,” in which abusive partners subject young women already at risk of violence to the additional health risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The new data confirm that we must expand not only our assumptions about who’s forcing whom to get pregnant but also our understanding of the meaning and causes of “unwanted” pregnancy. “If we are serious about stopping unplanned pregnancy in this country, we simply must address the sexual violence and reproductive control that often cause it,” says Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which has been a leading advocate on the issue.

A new study has found that among 71 women aged 18-49 with a history of intimate partner violence, 74 percent reported having experienced some form of reproductive control, including forced unprotected intercourse, failure to withdraw as promised or sabotaging of condoms. Women who became pregnant were coerced to proceed in accordance with the wishes of their partners, who in some cases threatened to kill them if they had an abortion. Study authors Ann Moore, Lori Frohwirth and Elizabeth Miller, MD, recommend that service providers in women’s health clinics ask questions designed to identify women who may be experiencing reproductive coercion, and should be aware that some women may need birth control (such as IUDs) that can be hidden from partners.
Though this article focuses on teens, the issue isn't limited to one age group. Many adult women who come to us for services report similar tactics being used against them, and unplanned pregnancy has profound consequences for their lives too. It is a lot easier to flee an abusive home with one child than with three. It is a lot easier to find a job that supports three people than five. And it is a lot easier to stay completely away from someone if you don't have children linking you together forever. Pregnancy also increases the intensity of family violence and makes just being in the relationship even more dangerous. Teen or adult, if you suspect that your partner is sabotaging your birth control or is trying to get you pregnant against your wishes, please call us at 404-370-7670. We'd like to help before things get worse.

If you are outside the metro Atlanta area and need help, call the GA statewide hotline at 1-800-33-HAVEN (42836). Elsewhere in the US, you can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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